In June, for the first time in history, the number of people who have been forced to flee their homes surpassed 100 million worldwide, including over 30 million refugees who have crossed international borders. Syrians have forged overland to Turkey and Venezuelans have traversed the Darien Gap to escape their collapsing states. In just four months, over five million Ukrainians have sought refuge across Europe and beyond. This is a global problem of such staggering proportions that it risks seeming unsolvable.

As a signatory to the Geneva Conventions, the United States pledged to accept individuals who reach its borders and can demonstrate that they have left their homelands “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, or membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, furthermore, contributed to the conditions that caused millions to flee. U.S. administrations, however, have not opened the doors significantly wider to acknowledge the magnitude of need: from 1980 through 2016, the United States admitted an average of 80,000 refugees annually.

Yet the dynamics of refugee resettlement in the United States are changing. Witness how since late April, ordinary Americans have logged in to a quickly created Department of Homeland Security website and offered to sponsor nearly 90,000 Ukrainians, a number that should soon surpass 100,000. Last fall, in another improvised effort, the United States took in almost 80,000 Afghans in just a few months. By contrast, the formal U.S. Refugee Admissions Program has resettled around 90,000 refugees combined in the five years since 2018.

These recent influxes have been met not by protests, as in times past, but by cross-partisan acclaim. That is in large part because change is coming from the grassroots. The Biden administration has created emergency policies and programs that have empowered Americans to welcome Afghans and Ukrainians in need and integrate them into their communities. These pilot programs are changing American approaches to refugee resettlement as well as American perspectives on welcoming newcomers. This should inspire the United States to adopt a new refugee resettlement model rooted in community sponsorship—as Canada did over 40 years ago. The Biden administration is already moving in this direction, but it should embrace this strategy even more forcefully, ambitiously, and publicly.

A History of Resettlement

Immigration is the bedrock on which the United States is built, but a formal refugee system dates only to the post–World War II period. Even in the aftermath of the Holocaust, it took Jewish groups and other advocates three years to persuade Congress to pass the Displaced Persons Act of 1948—a grueling quest brilliantly told by David Nasaw in his book The Last Million. Even then, it was the need for labor—not just a humanitarian instinct fed by the horrors of war—that helped propel passage of the act. And it was communities—primarily faith groups—that stepped up to welcome hundreds of thousands of Eastern Europeans who had languished in camps for the displaced for years.

Although the United States’ self-conception is one of a nation of immigrants—look no further than the Emma Lazarus poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty—the country has been relatively stingy in welcoming refugees. This reached a nadir under former U.S. President Donald Trump, who publicly stated he would like to see the intake of refugees from countries such as Syria reduced to zero. By 2020, he capped the number of refugees the United States would accept at a mere 18,000; that year, fewer than 12,000 people were in fact resettled in the country.

The way in the United States resettled refugees eroded support for welcoming foreigners.

Certainly, racism and xenophobia played a role in Trump’s refugee policy. As he allegedly said during a cabinet meeting, he wanted to reduce the number of U.S. immigrants from “shithole countries.” And those sentiments are by no means limited to the former president. Racial animus is still a powerful force in American life.

That said, the way in which refugees have been resettled in the United States for the past 42 years has also played a critical role in eroding support for welcoming and integrating foreigners. In 1980, in the aftermath of the Vietnamese “boat people” crisis, the Refugee Act professionalized resettlement and gave operational control to a small number of national resettlement agencies. The result was a rigid, bureaucratic system tightly regulated by the State Department that radically reduced both innovation and opportunities for community engagement.

The good news is that there is a growing movement to revive a community refugee resettlement model, an approach that was much more common in the United States before 1980. After the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis, community-led efforts started to emerge again on an ad hoc basis in parts of the country before being more formally embraced by the Biden administration in 2021; in fact, one of President Joe Biden’s first executive orders in February 2021 called for the establishment of a private refugee sponsorship pilot program.

Where Things Stand Now

The State Department is the main gatekeeper for the resettlement system, but other federal, state, and local agencies also play critical yet complicating roles. A resettlement agency has to sign a cooperative agreement that is more than 100 pages long and regulates such finicky details as how many forks must be in a refugee’s kitchen—although it does not pay much attention to outcomes vital to newcomers and communities, such as employment or integration. Federal financial support for refugees is guaranteed only for the first 90 days after arrival and does not even include the cost of transportation to their final destinations. Refugees endure an average of two years of security, health, and other types of vetting, languishing overseas in often distressing or dangerous settings. The system’s complexity has grown to the point that even sophisticated national service and faith organizations feel frozen out.

The United States’ nine national resettlement agencies and nearly 250 affiliates certainly do excellent and important work. They provide a stable foundation for the resettlement system, handle some of the most difficult cases, and train volunteers. Many—including local groups such as Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services in New Haven, Connecticut, and national ones such as Church World Service, Episcopal Migration Ministries, and HIAS (founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society)—have also been pioneers in recent years in establishing community-led resettlement programs. But collectively, they have hewed closely to their current business model and resisted innovation, failing to take advantage of the extraordinary talents of Americans in communities throughout the country. This has had the unwanted effect of weakening political support for refugees.

The consequences of the United States’ narrow, professionalized approach to resettlement can be seen by comparing it with Canada’s program. During the Vietnamese boat lift in the late 1970s, Ottawa opened up resettlement to the public through private sponsorship rather than insisting on a system run exclusively by the government. Today, Canada welcomes about 40,000 refugees a year—which in relation to the overall population would be equivalent to some 350,000 refugees in the United States—the majority through sponsorship. And private sponsorship has not displaced government resettlement programs; the Canadian government’s program remains strong. Nearly a third of Canadians say they have been a member of a sponsorship group or have supported one. As a result, public backing for refugees in Canada makes resettlement untouchable—unlike in the United States, where the Trump administration nearly destroyed the system with surprisingly little resistance. It is one thing for a legislator to be lobbied by refugee professionals. It is quite another if the advocates are the lawmaker’s neighbors who are volunteering their time to integrate newcomers—and who themselves are benefiting from the experience. Entire communities have been revived after deciding to systematically welcome refugees. For evidence in the United States, look no further than Utica, New York, and Clarkston, Georgia.

Taking collective responsibility for newcomers brings neighbors together and reanimates community life.

The essential power of private sponsorship is that it taps into the extraordinary talents that exist in every community. In my small town in rural Connecticut, almost 350 residents have come together to support an Afghan family of six that arrived this spring. The 50 or so most active members of the group have a dazzling array of skills that allow them to do everything from fundraising to securing and furnishing housing, enlisting families in social services, lining up medical appointments, helping adults find employment, and enrolling children in school. The group aspires to take in at least one more family. Some 80 sponsorship groups have formed in Connecticut in recent years, even in the absence of a national policy framework.

To those involved, it is abundantly clear that sponsorship is as meaningful to the sponsors as it is to the refugees. Loneliness is nearly epidemic in modern life. The act of taking collective responsibility for welcoming newcomers brings neighbors together across partisan and other divides in ways that reanimate community life, create a sense of common cause, and build civic consciousness. It keeps people from bowling alone. Sponsorship allows residents to engage at whatever level they prefer, from taking full responsibility for the resettlement project as a leader of a group to simply volunteering an hour a week as a driver, shopping guide, or English tutor.

Look Northward

The United States should make the Canadian sponsorship model the national resettlement standard—and improve on it. That process is already underway. This past year has upended the outdated American resettlement system as a rush of communities of care—veterans seeking to support their displaced Afghan interpreters and allies, members of the Ukrainian diaspora, service organizations, faith groups, local governments, colleges and universities, and ordinary Americans throughout the country moved by the plight of Afghans and Ukrainians—have demanded to be part of the response to the crises. The Biden administration has improvised in creative ways to address the surge of interest and need. These innovations point the way to a more powerful, community-led system of welcoming refugees in the United States.

One of the administration’s critical reforms, made last fall, was to allow community members to become directly responsible for resettlement rather than limiting them to volunteering for refugee agencies. In October, the State Department worked with the Community Sponsorship Hub—a new nongovernmental organization (NGO) designed to expand sponsorship in the United States by focusing on program development and capacity building—to launch the Sponsor Circle Program. This allows five or more Americans to come together to welcome Afghan refugees after receiving rigorous training. The successful trial of Sponsor Circles set the stage for the Uniting for Ukraine program, which launched in April and has led to an extraordinary increase in the number of sponsors.

A second vital innovation by the U.S. government has been its effort to speed up the vetting process for refugees without compromising security standards. Until now, the process was complex and not well coordinated, leading to average wait times abroad of about two years and often much longer. The Biden administration is reducing this wait time, and has created a 30-day processing system for Afghans in Doha by surging concentrated resources for vetting on location. In the case of the Ukrainians, meanwhile, and with most Afghans, the government has expedited entry into the United States by scaling a system called humanitarian parole, which allows individuals to quickly reach safety.

The State Department is also rethinking how it can bring more actors into the resettlement space. It recently announced a call for proposals that invites NGOs to help refer refugees to the resettlement system. For instance, NGOs working with journalists in conflict zones or groups working with members of the LGBTQ community who know their populations and local contexts better than UN refugee agencies or governments can help those at risk of persecution reach safety in the United States. The State Department also recently solicited proposals for participation in the resettlement program with a strong emphasis on welcoming new national partners.

Research shows that sponsored refugees are more likely to become well integrated into society.

Another innovation will come later this year, when the administration launches a formal private sponsorship program that will allow Americans to identify refugees who are overseas and sponsor them for resettlement in the United States, much like Uniting for Ukraine does—but through the formal U.S. refugee admissions program. This pilot program should expand and become permanent; it eventually could serve as a critical pillar of refugee policy in the United States. Rather than displacing the current resettlement system, it would enhance and help sustain it, as in Canada.

All this will take infrastructure backed by both public and private support. For several years, local resettlement agencies and philanthropists have been making investments in the systems needed for community-led sponsorship. Last September, a major element of the infrastructure was created with the launch of Welcome.US. In less than a year, the organization—which has the backing of a Welcome Council that includes four former presidents and scores of business, religious, and other leaders—has mobilized corporations, faith groups, service organizations, and ordinary Americans to respond to the Afghan and Ukrainian crises. Its business council is led by the CEOs of Accenture and Google; its Welcome Fund has raised and distributed over $20 million. In late June, it launched a program to connect sponsors with Ukrainians seeking support; almost 2,000 Americans completed sponsorship applications in the first 20 days alone.

Straw Men

There will be resistance to change—there always is. As in most establishments, dogma protects the interests of the main players. The most pernicious claim typically made is that only professionals know how to resettle refugees. Yet the evidence, both in the United States and elsewhere, contradicts this. In Canada, systematic research over many years shows that sponsored refugees are more likely to become well integrated into society. And those studies miss the other side of sponsorship—the benefits that accrue to communities. Many sponsors say that the experience has changed their lives. This is the ultimate win-win outcome, in quality, quantity, and durability.

In the United States and Europe, meanwhile, the generous response to Ukrainian displacement compared with the treatment of other waves of refugees from non-European countries has led to accusations of racism. It is irrefutable that host countries have not been nearly as welcoming to Africans, Central Americans, Haitians, and other people of color. At the same time, the response to the Afghan and Ukrainian crises shows that welcoming at scale is possible. Rather than falling prey to divisive discourse, government officials and activists should work to leverage this moment to develop sustainable structures that are accessible to refugees regardless of race. Building a welcoming culture takes time and deep community involvement; it cannot be done by government fiat (consider how hard it was for the United States to open its doors even in the aftermath of the Holocaust). Over time, those offering to host Ukrainians can be encouraged to extend their welcome to others. In the United Kingdom, over 200,000 individuals and groups offered to sponsor Ukrainians this spring; some are already taking in Afghans who had been housed in hotels by the government. In Poland, a country in which antimigrant politics have prevailed in recent years, a majority of residents have said that they have been involved in welcoming Ukrainians.

The deep engagement of communities in resettlement will not solve every migration problem.

With the right policies and infrastructure in place, the United States could not only sustainably welcome hundreds of thousands of refugees a year but also use the community capacity it has activated to help additional populations—the homeless, asylum seekers, and others in need of assistance. Rather than tell the government what it should do, NGOs and communities of care can stand up and do some of the work themselves, with government support. Climate activists could help organize communities to take in those displaced by the climate crisis, for instance, pioneering what might then become a larger government commitment. By opening up the resettlement system, the U.S. government would enable private citizens who are concerned about international humanitarian crises to become directly involved in the act of securing a better future for those who have been forced to flee their countries.

The deep engagement of communities in resettlement will not solve every migration problem. Congress, for instance, still needs to create a pathway for Afghans and Ukrainians who were paroled into the country so that they can secure legal status. Key questions also need to be answered, including how to reach and empower all Americans who want to serve as sponsors and how federal and state policies can support communities that hope to resettle large numbers of refugees.

This quiet revolution has not been limited to the United States. In fact, more than a dozen countries have turned to sponsorship since 2016, thanks in large part to the work of the Global Refugee Sponsorship Initiative, a multistakeholder partnership that includes the government of Canada. Its officials, working closely with the University of Ottawa Refugee Hub, the UN refugee agency, and the Open Society Foundations, among others, have collaborated with their counterparts in Argentina, Australia, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom, and other countries to design sponsorship pilots and programs. Canada’s willingness to devote its time and expertise to the initiative has been the linchpin of GRSI’s success.

The growth of community-led resettlement should become the third major inflection point in the U.S. refugee system, following the Displaced Persons Act of 1948 (and the Geneva Convention of 1951) and the Refugee Act of 1980. The Biden administration needs to ensure that 2022 is remembered as the year that a new approach to refugee resettlement was born. American communities are rising to the occasion that this global challenge demands; the U.S. government needs to empower and support their welcoming efforts.

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  • GREGORY MANIATIS is a Director at the Open Society Foundations and served as Senior Adviser to the UN Special Representative for Migration for more than a decade.
  • More By Gregory Maniatis