Our country is celebrating the 40-year anniversary of the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980, a point in history when Americans came together to formalize our commitment to protecting vulnerable refugees brought to our shores by global conflict. But over the course of four decades, we allowed the role of our communities in those efforts to diminish. Although a different crisis makes headlines today, the refugee crisis has been playing out in the background for years, and we need to think through the way we can involve communities again. 

As conversations about reforming refugee sponsorship and processes continue, it’s important to internalize some key lessons learned from U.S. experiments, programs from other countries, and some of the cutting-edge resettlement work happening across the country right now. Chief among those lessons: community sponsorship should not serve to replace the existing system, but as a complement to it. 

The current U.S. refugee resettlement system is a public-private partnership that fosters collaboration among the federal government, state and local entities, individual volunteers, and the refugees themselves. The federal government provides initial funding to aid the refugees’ transition to their new country, but charity plays a role throughout the entire process; Refugee Council USA, the umbrella organization of the nine national resettlement agencies, offer this map on their website of community sponsorship opportunities across the country. 

Often unseen is the role that civil society — congregations, community groups, companies, foundations, and individuals — plays in robust collaboration to aid in the resettlement and integration of arriving refugees. There is real charity baked into the entire resettlement process: from in-kind donations of English classes from former teachers to the purchase of a new couch by a neighbor to help with preparing for a job interview from a friend, and much more.

Involvement of private individuals — and communities — should be encouraged and facilitated, not as a replacement for government sponsorship, but as a complement. To return to the old 1940s resettlement model, solely reliant on private sponsorship, would be to turn the clock back on critically important social safety nets.

Community sponsorship provides a more hands-on approach to refugee integration and success while building networks for refugees and sponsors alike. It builds bridges between refugees and their new neighbors and communities; provides needed financial and in-kind support; and promotes integration by expanding personal and professional networks. 

In fact, studies from other countries that employ a similar model show employment and language skills are improved by community sponsorship programming. The result is a wider community, more financial resources, and better overall assimilation into the U.S. 

An oft forgotten champion of private sponsorship was President Ronald Reagan. From FY 1987 to FY 1995, more than 16,000 refugees were resettled under the Private Sponsorship Initiative, which he launched to allow the private sector to supplement the government’s refugee efforts by sponsoring additional immigrants with private funds. The program was not renewed by the Clinton administration because the financial requirements — ultimately, medical costs — were too unpredictable for private sponsors to cover.

The lesson here is that any private resettlement program needs the federal government to provide a financial backstop at the outset; the upside is that it pays the U.S. back in dividends.

Economically speaking, refugees are a great investment. It is well-recognized that refugees are hardly a drain on the public coffers, although some still try to make this argument—a recent piece by Mark Krikorian in National Review comes to mind. 

Krikorian suggests that refugees pose an enormous cost to U.S. taxpayers and that the resettlement system should transition to a private sponsorship model to save taxpayer money; this is wrong on two fronts. 

First, the study he cites, conducted by the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), depressed the positive fiscal impact of refugees by misusing a model developed by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and making unjustifiable decisions and implausible assumptions — this is not an anomaly in CIS methodology, generally speaking.

The CIS research also contradicts a 2017 report from the Department of Health and Human Services that found refugees brought in net revenue of $63 billion to federal, state, and local governments over the 2005-14 period surveyed. The New York Times reported White House officials “rejected” the HHS report. 

Furthermore, refugees have proved to be capable revitalizers in multiple instances across the US. In places like Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Detroit, St. Louis, Baltimore, Syracuse, and elsewhere, refugees have bolstered local tax bases and played a crucial role in bringing some downtrodden neighborhoods back to life. 

So what should a community sponsorship program look like? It should take the lessons from the Canadian system, from the Reagan experiment, and from the current iterations of sponsorship happening across the country, like  IRIS in Connecticut and Canopy in Arkansas.

The best resettlement system includes the federal government in conjunction with state and locals, it utilizes the existing professional resettlement apparatus, and it more aggressively taps into the private sector. 

Local resettlement agencies across the country should maximize their programs that engage community members. And while this administration won’t advance fruitful refugee ideas, the next administration should pilot a community sponsorship program where groups of five or more Americans can sponsor refugees for one year. We should launch the pilot, test it, refine the program, and scale it across the country. 

Every country distinguishes support for refugees from that needed by other immigrants, because, by definition, they need more help. When we think about how to provide that help, we should think about how we provide assistance to our fellow Americans during times of crisis. There are times of great need when we rely on the government, but it is critical that we couple government support with community engagement.

Photo credit: John Englart (Takver) from Flickr