President Joe Biden just threw a lifeline to victims of one of the modern world’s greatest tragedies: He announced his administration’s intention to raise the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program‘s annual cap to 125,000 people.

That’s up from the 15,000 set by the Trump administration, and it restores America’s commitment to welcoming the world’s most vulnerable for resettlement.

U.S. policy on this issue under former President Donald Trump limited resettlement to an all-time low of 11,814 people in the year that ended last Sept. 30, and gutted a 40-year bipartisan tradition.

But the actions that abruptly shut America’s doors triggered an outpouring of support. Individual citizens inundated resettlement agencies with offers of assistance. Groups of friends, organizations and businesses hosted dinners for refugees to hear their stories, connect and help. “In response to Trump’s harmful policies, there was an unprecedented surge of support for refugees,” said Danielle Grigsby, Director of Policy and Practice at Refugee Council USA, a coalition supporting refugees and asylum seekers.

Rolling the dice with harm and death

Protecting lives in present danger is the heart of America’s resettlement program. There are, for example, thousands of interpreters who served U.S. military forces abroad and are consequently under constant threat; unaccompanied children kidnapped by traffickers facing torture and death or enslavement; parents in the United States frantic to reunite with children in dangerous circumstances. For those waiting, each day means rolling the dice with harm and death. Immediate action in such cases is urgent. Doing nothing is a stain on our national conscience.

Under President Biden’s leadership, we have a unique opportunity to reimagine the resettlement system and realign federal policy with grassroots will. The Biden administration should fully support The Grace Act, a bill that sets a minimum of 95,000 refugee arrivals a year — the average since the program’s inception in 1980.

Activists on Oct. 15, 2019, in Washington, D.C.

Ultimately, building a more enduring resettlement program depends on the approval and engagement of the American people. Making deeply personal connections is the most powerful way to do this.

Take Barbara and Ed Shapiro. They’ve embraced the Hayani and Aljelou families, from Syria, upon their arrival at Boston’s Logan International Airport and have helped them with housing, jobs and school for the children. The Shapiros say these newfound friendships are the rarest privilege of their lives. They, along with members of their synagogue who also helped, are now staunch advocates for resettlement.

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Canada has pioneered this kind of grassroots engagement with its 42-year-old Private Sponsorship of Refugees program, which puts Canadians in the driver’s seat in helping refugees enter and integrate in Canada. Nearly 2 million peoplevolunteered to help Syrian arrivals in 2015 and 2016, an effort that has built a fiercely loyal nationwide grassroots support network.

Biden’s executive order prioritizes this kind of pivotal community sponsorship, which is already practiced in a number of the 200 resettlement agencies across the USA.

Chris George, executive director of the Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS), a Connecticut-based agency, says that if the United States had a program like Canada’s, “we would enjoy so much public support for refugees that no elected official would dare dismantle the resettlement program.”

Refugees help America

IRIS is pioneering a co-sponsorship model, in which professional staff train community volunteers who then take the lead in helping refugees to integrate. This effort intimately links Americans with newcomers’ hopes, dreams and challenges, and increases the speed at which they secure their first jobs and feel a sense of home.

Once refugees arrive, they are often stuck in low-paying jobs. Federal policies should align with best practices to help refugees and immigrants become self-reliant. Newcomers get better paying jobs with workplace-focused English language instruction, according to a results-based new program in Massachusetts.

More broadly, educating employers to create more inclusive hiring practices, and educating newcomers to adapt their skills and experience to the U.S. workforce, as the organization Upwardly Global does, opens up higher-paying professional jobs.

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America ultimately benefits. A recent study showed that refugees contribute $63 billion more to the economy over the past decade than they take in services. Today, former refugees are standing shoulder to shoulder as front-line COVID-19 responders, even as others revitalize depressed towns and cities with their entrepreneurship.

As the number of people forcibly displaced worldwide surpasses 80 million, roughly 1% of humanity, American leadership is needed. We must save lives under imminent threat and, as Biden says, rebuild “a more inclusive and welcoming America.” Citizens have already displayed a commitment to lead. This is the moment to reimagine our program, and ensure that refugee resettlement again becomes one of our proudest and most enduring traditions.




Sasha Chanoff (@SashaChanoff), a Charles Bronfman Prize Laureate, is the founder of RefugePoint and co-author of “From Crisis to Calling: Finding Your Moral Center in the Toughest Decisions.” Vilas Dhar (@vilasdhar) is president of the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation.