Symposium | The Future of Global Democracy

Building A Nation of Welcomers

By Nazanin Ash

Tagged Democracyrefugees

We are at a pivotal moment in the writing of this country’s story of democracy. In cities and towns across America, something remarkable is underway. Far from the toxicity of our national politics, Americans in every corner of the map—in rural communities and major city centers—are raising their hands to help people in search of safety, whether it be our Afghan allies or Ukrainians escaping the Russian invasion. And by responding to their desire to help—by enabling and empowering Americans to welcome vulnerable newcomers and help them thrive—we may find the answer not only to the displacement crisis but to our own national healing, fueling the rejuvenation of our democracy in troubled times.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has driven global displacement levels to an all-time high of 100 million. If the numbers displaced represented a country, it would be the world’s 15th largest. The number of people displaced has more than doubled over the last decade, with brutal and often genocidal conflicts from Syria to Afghanistan to South Sudan and Myanmar burning strong. Conflict and climate crises have grown unchecked. Displacement is now increasingly a permanent state of being rather than a temporary crisis. In fact, over 75 percent of displacement challenges are now classified as “protracted”—crises lasting five years or more. On average over the last decade, less than 3 percent of refugees were able to return home; and less than 1 percent have been resettled to a new community with the opportunity to rebuild their lives with safety and opportunity. Most live their lives in limbo, confined to camps, unable to work legally, move freely, send their children to school, rebuild their lives, and contribute to their host nations. At the heart of each of these lost opportunities lies a story of human potential slipping away for generations to come.

Win-win solutions ought to be within reach: Countries from the United States to the U.K. to Japan are greatly in need of workers at all skill levels. Technocrats have long made the case that immigration is vital to our economies and the care of our aging societies. Immigration done well—where newcomers are given the right to work, access to education and healthcare—is a win everywhere, every time. Poland’s economy grew by 8.5 percent in the last quarter while absorbing over 3 million refugees, and importantly, giving them the immediate right to work, with no refugee camps in sight. Germany, which uniquely among its European neighbors accepted over 1.9 million refugees between 2015 and 2020, is reaping the benefits, with 50 percent of employed refugees working in high-skill jobs. Here in the United States, a 2017 Health and Human Services report found that over a 10-year period, refugees contributed over $63 billion more than they received in public services.

But polarized politics stand in the way of these win-win solutions. Instead, the United States and other wealthy democracies have pursued paths that undermine our collective humanity, our economies, our stability, our security—and our democracies. With a few notable exceptions, wealthy nations have led a global retreat from humanitarian obligations, reducing refugee admissions, rejecting asylum seekers, and closing pathways to safety in their countries. Contrary to conventional wisdom, over 80 percent of the world’s refugees are hosted in low- and middle-income countries; in fact, just 10 countries, accounting for only 2.5 percent of global GDP, host 50 percent of the world’s refugees, with pressures on these struggling governments mounting year over year.

These unchecked and unmanaged humanitarian crises foment new—often tectonic—political crises. Of the 15 largest instances of refugees being repatriated since the 1990s, one-third have resulted in the resumption of civil war, which is among the most significant threats to democracy. But the threats to democracy do not end there. One can draw a line from the insufficient international response to Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan to their migration to Europe—and to Brexit. Brexiteers infamously exploited and demonized Syrian refugees seeking safety in Europe. What began as a Syrian refugee crisis resulted in an existential threat to European unity and democratic expansion. And the lasting consequences of this threat have yet to play out fully.

The Brexiteers’ strategy crossed the pond and gave lift to a well-worn playbook in U.S. elections, exploiting not only the Syrian crisis but increasing arrivals of asylum seekers and migrants to the U.S. border. After years of bipartisan support for refugees—with some of the highest levels of refugee admissions set under Republican presidents—demonization of refugees and migrants took flight and was suddenly the topic of U.S. elections from the presidency to city councils. Immigration was “very important” to 70 percent of voters in the 2016 elections—up from just 42 percent four years earlier. The polarization of U.S. politics that cemented itself in 2016 was profoundly shaped by false narratives on migrants and refugees—even tearing apart towns where no newcomers were arriving. The fraying of our democracy has only accelerated in the years since the 2016 presidential election, in ways well documented in this journal.

So I come to you now because while Welcome.US, which I’m privileged to lead, was created to respond to a humanitarian challenge, the work of our organization is at its core about strengthening American democracy. What we are learning is that by giving more Americans and American institutions the opportunity to help, we are not only finding solutions for democracy-threatening migration pressures, but we are reigniting what made our democracy strong in the first place: The great Tocquevillian insight about Americans’ willingness to help one another and better our communities, and in so doing coming together in spaces outside of politics, problem-solving together, and building the connectivity, understanding, respect of the other, social cohesion and community bonds that undergird effective and resilient democracies.

Welcome.US was conceived in the crucible of the Afghan response to help mobilize Americans and American institutions to support the resettlement of Afghan evacuees. The United States faced an enormous national challenge: resettling nearly 80,000 refugees with a government program that in the previous year had resettled just over 11,400 refugees. It was a challenge that far exceeded the capacity of our governmental systems alone, which, at their most robust, supported 85,000 refugee arrivals in a single year. But it was a challenge that could be met by tapping into the whole of American society—its communities, its civic and service organizations, its corporate sector, its faith, veteran, and diaspora groups. 

So we set about asking Americans to help, and the results were astonishing. Everywhere we turned, Americans said yes. A bipartisan group, spearheaded by John Bridgeland and Cecilia Muñoz, who served under Presidents Bush and Obama respectively, quickly built the largest refugee resettlement coalition in U.S. history, with four former presidents and first ladies serving as honorary co-chairs, and leaders representing state and local governments and every sector from the military to the arts to philanthropy to media and faith, civic, and service groups.

The CEOs of nearly 40 of America’s most iconic companies formed a Welcome.US CEO Council that has provided over $240 million in goods, services, and other resources to support newcomers. Employee resource groups mobilized as volunteers, expert teams brought new innovations to bear on how to more efficiently and effectively support newcomers with their needs, and companies engaged their consumers to donate housing, flights, and household supplies.

The Welcome.US Welcome Fund funded nearly 150 community-based volunteer organizations providing wrap-around resettlement support with no federal funding—nearly 70 percent of which are diaspora-, refugee-, or veteran-led organizations. With deep roots in the communities they serve, these organizations are on the frontlines of providing the day-to-day support newcomers need to rebuild their lives. And in many cases, they are best equipped to provide the tools that newcomers need to build the resiliency needed to thrive on their new path.

Civic organizations—diverse as Lions Clubs International, Samaritan’s Purse, Islamic Relief USA, Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, veteran-led Team Rubicon, and refugee-led Viets for Afghans—mobilized their members to help, alongside hundreds of community- and diaspora-led organizations. The federal government innovated, creating opportunities for a broader range of civic and service organizations to participate in directly resettling Afghan newcomers, including through a Sponsor Circles program where five or more Americans could privately sponsor Afghan families. Within a matter of months, hundreds of Afghans were privately resettled by Americans all over the country. The desire of Americans to participate in welcoming exceeded every expectation.

When Russia invaded Ukraine, the United States faced its second urgent global humanitarian crisis in less than six months. With government systems already strained by the Afghan evacuation, the U.S. government learned the lessons of its Afghan response and innovated further, breaking open the opportunity to everyday Americans to help. Uniting for Ukraine was designed as a true public-private partnership, allowing Ukrainians in need of safety to come to the United States with the support of a U.S. sponsor. The U.S. government conducts background and security checks of both Ukrainians and Americans participating in the program, and Ukrainians are eligible for work authorization and public benefits like cash, food, and medical assistance once they arrive. But it is everyday Americans who provide the lifelines to get here, and the travel, housing, and initial financial and social support to help Ukrainians rebuild their lives. 

Thus for the first time since the federal refugee resettlement program was created in 1980, we asked: What happens if you reimagine welcoming newcomers as a community endeavor instead of a government process?

Now we know. One month after the Biden Administration announced the Uniting for Ukraine program, Americans signed up to sponsor more refugees than the whole of the U.S. government admitted in the last three fiscal years combined.

Five months into the program, nearly 130,000 Americans have signed up to be sponsors. Organic and organized civic fora—from Facebook pages to Welcome Connect, a platform that connects Ukrainians in need of safety to American sponsors who want to provide it—are rapidly enabling Ukrainians to come to safety, far outpacing the traditional, outmoded, and under-resourced government refugee resettlement process. They are demonstrating a willingness to welcome that is far ahead of our national politics and capacity to welcome that is far ahead of our government systems alone. Americans have directly resettled Ukrainians in every corner of the country—even in states like Wyoming, Mississippi, and South Carolina—states that, due to the dividing lines of our politics, had withdrawn from the federal refugee resettlement program. Given space to contribute, Americans are building a movement of welcomers—and building it across so many real and perceived divides.

Cynics might say Americans wouldn’t show up in this way for non-white populations, but the evidence tells us otherwise. Beneath the toxicity of our national politics, Americans have shown themselves time and again to be welcomers. Not as participants in national debates about immigration, but as good neighbors showing up to support newcomers in their communities. Church and other volunteer groups have for years tapped into private capacity to welcome the thousands of vulnerable asylum seekers and migrants who come to our country each year without access to the government-funded and government-administered refugee resettlement program. Our poll with More in Common demonstrated that there are 90 million Americans who are or would like to be welcoming newcomers. An estimated 54 million Americans—21 percent of adults—have already participated in an act of welcoming newcomers in the last 12 months. A further 36 million Americans—14 percent of adults—would like to help, but don’t yet know how to do so. They haven’t been given the opportunity.

And while Americans from both political parties have shown high levels of support for welcoming Afghans and Ukrainians, with support for welcoming these populations polling close to 80 percent, Americans have been increasing their support for refugees overall even as our national discourse grew more polarized. The Pew Research Center found that in 2019, 73 percent of Americans agreed that “admitting refugees escaping war and violence was a very or somewhat important goal,” up from 61 percent in 2016. Importantly, the increase was driven in large part by an 18-percentage point increase among Republicans, 58 percent of whom said admitting refugees was an important goal, up from 40 percent in 2016.

Welcome.US operates on the evidence that direct participation with newcomers transforms both the welcomer and those being welcomed. By making it easier for Americans from all walks of life to participate in the work of welcoming—and telling their stories—we aim to not only ensure needed support to newcomers but also build a broader, more politically and geographically diverse, and more durable American constituency that will help us welcome many more. We do this not as an advocacy organization or an operational agency providing direct services to newcomers, but as a place where all who seek to welcome can find opportunity, find themselves, and find community, including across real or perceived divides.

National politicians have been frozen in their ability to work together to meet this moment, but everyday Americans are leading the way. True to what Tocqueville saw in us, Americans are showing up—through their churches, synagogues, veteran’s service organizations, Lions and Rotary clubs, and even their employee resource groups—to help their new neighbors. The opportunity for us now is to seize upon American compassion and culture of contribution to help welcome more newcomers—and in the process build the capacity, the willingness, the national consensus, and political space we need to resolve one of our most urgent global challenges.

So how do we do that? The current U.S. refugee resettlement architecture paradoxically makes it more difficult for everyday Americans to participate. While grounded in good intentions and the desire to provide expert and equitable care for refugees, it has kept refugees shrouded in bureaucracy and unintentionally separated from the communities that can help them thrive—not least by providing the sense of belonging, inclusion, and renewed social capital networks so critical to success in a new country. It also vastly limits our capacity to welcome, with refugee resettlement admissions numbers set via presidential determination, shaped by what perceived politics will allow, and subject to bipartisan agreement on congressional appropriations. U.S. refugee admissions averaged roughly 50,000 per year over the two decades preceding the Trump Administration, even as global displacement more than doubled.

The program was further constrained by the capacity of the limited number of government partners—the nine heroic resettlement agencies who administer the U.S. government’s refugee resettlement program. The limits of the government system emerged as critical constraints during the evacuation of Afghans to the United States, with Afghans remaining at times for months on U.S. military bases and in hotels, unable to settle into their new communities as they waited for overstretched resettlement agencies to find housing and provide other resettlement needs. Even with thousands of Americans raising their hands to help, resettlement agencies were hampered by various and disparate rules and regulations for engaging volunteers and the resources they had to offer and struggled to put local volunteer capacity to use at scale. In contrast, more than 150,000 Ukrainians have arrived in the last six months, and while here too, there have been challenges, the vast majority have been served by the warm embrace of family, friends, diaspora communities, and welcomers.

The resettlement system also took on the dividing lines of our politics, with government-funded resettlement offices increasingly concentrated in willing states, and large swaths of the country—states from Wyoming to South Carolina to Mississippi—with few to no refugee resettlement programs.

The Biden Administration has rightly proposed a private sponsorship pilot program, but the success of the Administration’s innovations with Uniting for Ukraine and the private sponsorship of Afghans has already proven that the pilot works. Americans are ready to do this work, and giving them the opportunity will bring out the best in us. Now is the time to expand programs like Uniting for Ukraine, under which Americans as sponsors have welcomed nearly 55,000 Ukrainians to our shores, to additional populations in need of urgent refuge, and to build a private sponsorship program at scale. 

The capacity and consensus for generosity that we can find as a nation by engaging Americans directly in the work of welcoming is nearly unquantifiable in its possibility, but what we know is cause for inspiration in troubled times. The collective capacity of the membership and volunteer organizations that make up Welcome.US’s Welcome Council exceeds 10 million Americans. Imagine the transformation if all of these good-hearted Americans are empowered to be the welcomers they want to be.

If we challenge the idea of what it means to offer refuge in America—and who has the opportunity to offer it—we can find a pathway through the seemingly intractable challenge of increasing migration pressures and closing political space. Better than a solution to the displacement crisis, however, is the even more hopeful possibility that it heals our national divides and begins to bring our communities together again. Larry Diamond wrote in this journal that “the possibilities and needs for invigorating our democracy and easing our bitter divides go beyond the formal political arena. We need to heal and renew our broader civic life, by encouraging more active civic engagement, more thoughtful deliberation, and greater respect for diverse views and life experiences.” What better way than through what Cecilia Muñoz calls “the side door of service,” approaching people not on the basis of their opinions about immigration or the border, but on the basis of their compassion and humanity, and Americans’ enduring willingness to better their communities and help their neighbors.

From the Symposium

The Future of Global Democracy

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Nazanin Ash  is the CEO of Welcome.US, a non-profit that mobilizes and empowers Americans to welcome newcomers and help them thrive. She was previously Vice President of Global Policy and Advocacy for the International Rescue Committee, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.

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