When President Biden announced this week that his administration would raise the cap on refugee admissions to 62,500 for this fiscal year, refugee advocates breathed a collective sigh of relief. The number is far above the historically low limit of 15,000 refugees set by the Trump administration. Biden's announcement was a stark turnaround after weeks of pushback from refugee advocates, outraged by a previous order keeping the 15,000 limit.
One of those most elated by this week's announcement is Ed Shapiro, a Boston-based philanthropist and advocate for reimagining the U.S. refugee resettlement system to enable a lot more community-based efforts.
"It is the start of a new era in resettlement," he says.
Biden's goal, laid out in a key phrase in a February executive order, introduces "community and private sponsorship" as an innovation that allows local groups of volunteers to become part of the circuitry of resettlement, including the day-to-day tasks of helping newcomers find housing, jobs, health care and a sense of community.
The U.S. usually resettles refugees in a different way: The State Department contracts with nine large resettlement organizations. Volunteers play a role, but the program is centered around professional caseworkers. It's all done quietly so communities don't reject the newcomers.
Now, the higher cap on refugee admissions means Shapiro can finally accelerate a project that has consumed him for four years. His aim is to fund pilot programs to kick-start an addition to the traditional resettlement infrastructure. "There is pent-up demand and interest," he says. "These are people, families, who want to help."
He partnered with the Open Society Foundation and other funders to tap a pool of donors and raised $800,000 for grants awarded in March to eight U.S. community groups in seven states. Another round of grantees will be announced this month.
The proposals are moving testimonies, says Shapiro. One, from New Orleans, came from a multifaith community group that includes representatives from the oldest Jewish temple in the U.S. and a Roman Catholic congregation. The proposal referenced the trauma of Hurricane Katrina — the searing experience that compelled them to apply, says Shapiro.
"We had to flee our homes for fear of our life, not knowing if we get to come back. Now, we want to tap into that," he says the applicants told him in their proposal.
Now that President Biden has officially opened the door to increased refugee flows this year, these community-based resettlement projects can get to work.
"This is the moment we've been waiting for. We have an administration that is not Trump. We've seen the commitment, the executive orders, the focus on sponsorship. Now is the time to do it," says Shapiro.
For inspiration and guidance, he looked to Canada. "They are the leader," he says. "My starting point was I want to learn from them."
Canada's 42-year-old Refugee Sponsorship Training Program has pioneered community involvement in refugee resettlement, and has resettled over 300,000 refugees. Private Canadian citizens provide initial financial support. Within the next year, this program is expected to resettle 22,500 refugees, almost twice as many as the Canadian government — though the pandemic has slowed the pace of arrivals.
"It's popular," says Geoffrey Cameron, coauthor of Strangers to Neighbours, a recent book about the resettlement program. "Those on the right like the program because it privatizes things and emphasizes citizen action." Those on the left, he says, like it because refugees are better integrated in a shorter time than they are in government resettlement programs.
The biggest test for the program came in November 2015, when it was responsible for 25,000 Syrian refugees who were admitted to Canada over 100 days. At the time, about a quarter of the Canadian population knew someone involved in sponsoring Syrian refugees, says Cameron.
He was surprised by what he saw in opinion polls in the years that followed.
"Attitudes towards immigrants improved, which is not what you'd expect," he says, noting the backlash in European countries like Germany that took in large numbers of refugees. "In Canada, you actually saw not a backlash but a warming effect. I think part of that has to be because of a personal connection many people had."
The Canadian poll numbers are no surprise to Chris George, the executive director of Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, the official resettlement agency in New Haven, Conn. It's a nonprofit contracted by the State Department to resettle refugees, but it also follows the Canadian model. George has seen a similar rise in support close to home as a result of the program he runs.
"Our main reason for promoting community-based resettlement — we have learned through experience that it is the best way to educate Americans about refugees and to strengthen public support for resettlement," he says.
IRIS has trained more than 50 community groups across the state in the past five years. At least 10 volunteers must raise at least $4,000 to help refugees start their new lives.
"The model we have here in Connecticut has gotten a lot of attention," says George. "As soon as the numbers [of incoming refugees] go up, I think you will see more and more cases placed with community groups."
Cynthia Dunn, a businesswoman in Danbury, joined a multifaith group that included a local synagogue, church and mosque. The group raised more than $15,000 and gathered 30 dedicated volunteers.
"We came together to help a family come into the country and start a new life," she says. "We connect them with schools, we help them find employment, we provide transportation in the beginning until they can do that themselves."
When Anur Abdella arrived with his wife and 3 children from Sudan in March 2020, Dunn and her team welcomed the family.
"They helped a lot," says Abdella.
It's a one-year commitment, but the bonds last much longer. Abdella says his family has remained close with the U.S. volunteers who helped them start a new life. Now, he says, those volunteers have become his family as well.