May the circles be unbroken

May the circles be unbroken November 28, 2021

I’ve been following this slow-breaking story since last month: “Biden Administration Will Make It Easier for Americans to Sponsor Afghan Refugees.”

The Biden administration is about to make a pretty significant change to how the US refugee resettlement program has worked for decades. The administration is expected to unveil a new plan that would allow any group of at least five private citizens to come together as a “sponsor circle” and help Afghan refugees resettle in US cities across the country, as reported by CBS News and CNN.

The program hasn’t been made public yet. But it’s reportedly going to allow any group of private citizens to apply to sponsor Afghans once the volunteers pass a background check, complete online trainings, and raise the funds necessary. The groups would be responsible for providing housing, legal counsel, medical services, basic necessities, and financial support for at least 90 days, according to CBS News.

This is not how refugee resettlement has previously worked. Usually, an agency that works with refugees is in charge of acquainting refugees with their new home environment and connecting them with community groups that can help with the transition. If refugees have family in the United States, they would be placed close to their relatives and in most cases within 100 miles of the agency that is responsible for their “reception and placement.” Biden’s plan would allow groups of private citizens to be responsible, opening up more places where Afghan refugees can go and speeding up the resettlement process.

The Trump years gutted the private charitable agencies that had handled most of America’s refugee resettlement logistics for decades, forcing them to lay off staff and close dozens of regional offices. Trump’s drastic cuts in the number of refugees welcomed into America thus left America with a drastically reduced capacity for accommodating new refugees even now that the former guy is gone. (I’d argue that the Trump years also radically changed American religion in a way that makes it much harder for those mostly church-related private agencies to rebuild their former capacity.)

All of that means that America is woefully unprepared to welcome tens of thousands of Afghan refugees. The charity groups that could have done this work 10 years ago are no longer capable of meeting the scale of this opportunity:

After four years of historic low arrivals under the Trump administration, agencies had to close some of their offices around the country, limiting where refugees can be relocated — a significant hurdle at a time when housing options are already hard to come by.

“We just didn’t have the capacity after the beating we took under the Trump administration,” said Mark Hetfield, the president and CEO of HIAS, a refugee resettlement agency. “Necessity is the mother of invention. This is the outcome of that.”

A sponsorship-like system is intended to allow greater flexibility and open more locations for refugees to go. But it’s dependent on people signing up and having the resources to support Afghans and their families.

Those resources are significant, but not insurmountable. It involves any group of (at least) five adults coming up with $2,500, plus maybe a few months rent. And it requires a significant investment of time spent with and on behalf one’s newly arriving neighbors — helping them find housing and employment, getting children enrolled in schools, etc. That’s not easy, exactly, but it’s not unimaginably beyond the capacity of everyone.

A local Rotary chapter could manage this. So could a local cover band. I’d imagine there are more than a few D&D groups who might be up to this task.

In other words, I don’t see the success of this as being “dependent on people signing up and having the resources to support” refugee families. I see it as being dependent on enough people learning about such a program and having easy access to clear, step-by-step instructions for how to help. If the roll-out for this program consists entirely of below-the-fold news reports, that won’t be enough.

Here’s one of the first follow-up stories I’ve seen since the reporting above, from Nina Shapiro of the Seattle Times (via the Twitter feed of the excellent refugee charity HIAS), “U.S. has new way to resettle Afghan refugees, and Vietnamese Americans in Washington answer call to help“:

Seeing the images of evacuating Afghans decades later, Nathan was the first in his family to get the idea: Maybe we should help. He got in touch with Viets for Afghans, a newly formed group of Vietnamese Americans in the Seattle area driven by their own families’ experiences to support this newest wave of refugees.

Now, the Duong family and several other members of Viets for Afghans plan to participate in a federal program launched last month that could radically change how some refugees are resettled. With tens of thousands of Afghan refugees stuck on U.S. military bases, many waiting for overwhelmed agencies to bring them into communities around the country, the State Department is inviting private citizens to form “sponsor circles.”

Just like resettlement agencies, which will continue to do this work, the circles of five or more people commit to helping refugees get housing, jobs, furniture, clothes, government benefits and whatever else they need to start a new life. The circles also must raise $2,275 for each sponsored individual to replace money typically provided by the federal government.

The program is just for Afghan refugees, who can choose to be resettled by agencies or private sponsors, and is a precursor to a larger private sponsorship effort the Biden administration plans to start next year. It is modeled on similar programs in Canada, Australia and elsewhere.

Shapiro discusses the worry that these ad hoc “sponsorship circles” won’t have the experience, expertise, and long-term commitment that the established resettlement charities have developed.

Locally, the sponsor circle program has been greeted with excitement, as well as questions and concerns.

“I love the idea of getting the private sector and individuals and community organizations to really step up and help address this critical gap that we have right now,” said Aneelah Afzali, executive director of the American Muslim Empowerment Network at the Muslim Association of Puget Sound, and a former Afghan refugee who came to the U.S. as a child. “The refugee agencies, you know, they’re fantastic, but they’re being tested in unprecedented ways.”

Afzali, whose organization is partnering with the state to welcome Afghan refugees, has been working with the Viets for Afghans circle, and said she believes the group is proceeding thoughtfully. At the same time, she worries that some sponsors might be unprepared for this level of responsibility and wants to know more about how the program will work before encouraging others to become sponsors.

Will Berkovitz, CEO of Jewish Family Service of Seattle, has put his concerns more sharply.

“You’re basically taking really well-meaning people without significant supervision and in most cases with very little knowledge, and asking them to do the work of a professional,” Berkovitz said. Canada has had decades to build a private sponsorship system, he added, advocating a go-slow approach that relies on coordination between volunteers and experienced agencies.

Matt Misterek, a spokesperson for Lutheran Community Services Northwest, said his agency already coordinates with many volunteers who supplement its work. Having an organizational backbone gives refugees support that volunteers on their own possibly couldn’t, he said. For instance, with money from its church network and fundraising and on top of federal dollars, Lutheran Community Services helps refugees for six months to a year. The sponsor circle program asks for a three-month commitment.

But everything doesn’t necessarily go smoothly with agencies, many of which scaled down as the Trump administration slashed refugee admissions and are now having to rapidly rebuild.

Navid Hamidi, executive director of the Afghan Health Initiative in Kent, said his organization has been paying for some refugees’ groceries because of snags in getting food stamps they’re entitled to, problems agency caseworkers have been unable to resolve.

Danielle Grigsby, co-founder of the Community Sponsorship Hub, a nonprofit charged by the federal government with managing sponsor applications, said there’s an extensive vetting process, including a background check, a knowledge test based on online curriculum, and review of a resettlement plan that applicants must submit.

The government will not directly monitor sponsors. But Grigsby said sponsors must file 30- and 90-day reports to the Hub and organizations it is working with, and the government will be notified of any problems. Grigsby also said some organizations, including HIAS (founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), a national resettlement agency that announced last week it was launching a network of at least 100 sponsor circles, will provide ongoing support to sponsors. HIAS is asking sponsors in the network to commit to six months, not three.

“I started out as a skeptic but I have become a true believer,” said HIAS President and CEO Mark Hetfield, reasoning there is no other alternative right now to resettle Afghans at the massive scale needed.

Shapiro also reminds us of the history of this kind of effort — which echoes the massive earlier effort to support the resettlement of tens of thousands of Vietnamese “boat people” refugees. (I wrote about that here: “Remembering the ‘boat people’ gives me a sinking feeling.”) That effort involved a big media push — one that produced way more upbeat, can-do, Good News stories than this effort has so far — including newspaper and radio ads encouraging local churches and civic groups to get involved.

This new program is just a few weeks old, so it’s too soon to tell where this is headed, if anywhere. But I’ll be keeping an eye on this, because the potential here is exciting.



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