How we can safeguard the future of private sponsorship in America

For four long years, the Trump administration made it a priority to block refugees from coming to America. Among the devastating effects of this was the abandonment of refugee resettlement centers in the U.S. and abroad, which will make it all the more difficult to resettle refugees for years to come. But the new goals laid out by the Biden administration aim to reset and enhance refugee resettlement, vaulting America back to its roots in humanitarian exceptionalism. Creating a private sponsorship pilot in the President’s new emergency declaration is one of the most significant resettlement changes in the program’s history. To successfully implement the pilot program, the administration should capitalize on the plethora of resources available on campuses across America. 

The United States has a venerable history of privately funding immigrants’ and refugees’ integration. For the better part of 200 years, private citizens, organizations, and churches sponsored refugees coming to America. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan launched a privately-funded refugee resettlement program that organized private financial support for more than 16,000 refugees above the annual cap. 

Since then, several countries have successfully adapted the private sponsorship concept and expanded it to help refugees with transition to life in their new homes, including helping them find housing and jobs. Governments Germany, Australia, Brazil, the U.K., and Spain, among others, are successfully engaging civil society more directly to bolster support for refugee resettlement and produce better outcomes for refugees. Canada has successfully run a private sponsorship program since the 1970s, resettling nearly 300,000 refugees with the help of over 2 million private citizens.

After a four year setback–and despite the inevitable new challenges we are bound to face –  it’s time for America to follow suit by implementing a successful private sponsorship pilot. For a model on how to do this, we need look no further than Greensboro, North Carolina, where an ambitious leader stood up the Every Campus a Refuge (ECAR) program in 2015 to host a refugee family. Its popularity exploded on the Guilford College campus, with over 125 trained students, faculty, staff, and community member volunteers who now provide various services for many more refugees and their families. 

By leaning on universities, we can ensure early success for the pilot. Universities have significant oversight, built-in healthcare coverage, abundant community resources, diverse language skills, and access to thousands of potential volunteers. In a few short years, six other institutions, like Wake Forest and Lafayette, adopted ECAR — with more to come. Hosting refugees not only builds valuable relationships, it teaches students about global migration.

Welcoming refugees is an economically sound move for cities and towns surrounding college campuses. Refugees have proved to be capable revitalizers across the U.S. In places like Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Detroit, St. Louis, and Syracuse, refugees have boosted local tax bases and played a crucial role in bringing some downtrodden neighborhoods back to life. 

In Oklahoma City, 7,000 Vietnamese refugee families “helped reshape a dying part” of the city and stabilized declining neighborhoods. Cities in the Rust Belt are significantly benefiting from resettlement. Outside of Columbus, Ohio, 17,000 refugees contribute $1.6 billion to the local economy each year. Without question, we’re seeing refugees bolster flagging populations, expand tax bases, and launch scores of small businesses, transforming once desolate areas into thriving neighborhoods.

What’s more, despite rhetoric to the contrary driven by the previous administration, most communities want to help. In fact, requiring state and local leaders to opt into resettling refugees in 2020 backfired mightily. Forty-three states — nearly half of which were led by Republican governors — made affirmative statements saying that they wanted to continue to resettle refugees.

Refugee resettlement promotes America’s strategic foreign interests as well. Advancing the national interest and ensuring robust refugee protection are mutually reinforcing — not exclusive — goals. According to those that have held the highest-level intelligence and security positions within the government, the U.S. refugee resettlement system helps us carry out foreign-policy objectives and serves the national interest.

The Biden administration has committed to a long-overdue and admittedly ambitious agenda for resettlement reforms. Americans want to help, they want their towns to benefit from resettlement, and they want to help secure our nation by welcoming refugees. To make the most of this pilot, we should engage with universities and colleges interested in helping resettle refugees and hope to soon grow opportunities for private and community-based sponsorship longer-term.

Kristie De Pena is the vice president for policy and the director of immigration policy at the Niskanen Center