For Refugee Resettlement to “Build Back Better,” Let Communities Take the Lead

By: Emily Crane Linn

November 24, 2020

Rethinking Religion and U.S. Refugee Resettlement

President-elect Biden has pledged to undo President Trump’s severe restrictions on refugee resettlement, starting by raising the cap from 15,000 to 125,000 in his first year in office. Long-time resettlement professionals agree that this target is achievable and in line with the United States’ historic average resettlement number of 85,000. But we shouldn’t only be asking how many refugees to admit; we should also be asking where they should go. Historically, refugees have clustered in large urban centers across the United States, and these centers will no doubt continue to account for a large share of resettlement, as refugees travel to join family members who are already established in places like San Francisco, Falls Church, and Minneapolis. But if the Biden administration is truly committed to seeing refugee resettlement “build back better,” it should look to smaller communities as the foundation—communities like mine.

For the past four years, I served as the founding executive director of Canopy of Northwest Arkansas, a refugee resettlement agency in the Ozark mountain town of Fayetteville. With just over 80,000 people, Fayetteville is not the sort of city that has typically served as a hub of refugee resettlement in the past—and indeed, before our organization got its start in 2016, the whole state of Arkansas resettled no more than a dozen refugees on average every year. But with record-low unemployment rates (pre-pandemic), low cost of living, and high quality of life, we knew our community was the perfect place for refugees to resettle—and we’ve proven it over the last four years. 

Despite dwindling resettlement numbers, Canopy resettled nearly 200 refugees from over a dozen countries. The vast majority of them have chosen to stay and make Arkansas their home. They’ve purchased homes; started small businesses; and taken leadership roles in their churches, schools, and workplaces. Meanwhile, support for refugee resettlement has grown across the state, even reaching the statehouse in Little Rock: In December 2019, Governor Hutchinson became one of only a handful of Republican governors to endorse refugee resettlement in his state, despite previously expressing misgivings in 2015. 

This is all thanks to Canopy’s grassroots advocacy and coalition-building. We knew that in order to be successful, we had to get the whole community involved and on board—and in a deep red state, that meant we needed the buy-in of our neighbors across the political spectrum. We appealed to employers who were struggling to meet their hiring needs under 2% unemployment. We appealed to faith leaders whose deep convictions about the sanctity of life compelled them to defend the persecuted and welcome the stranger. And we appealed to those who had served in our military and had seen conflict and suffering up close. Together, we carved out a corner of common ground where our community could come together despite growing political polarization, and we poured our energy into welcoming refugees to our city. 

This community-based approach to resettlement is unique today—but it didn’t used to be. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, small communities like mine rallied together to give refugees a new start, often with very little outside support. It was their energy, dedication, and creativity as a community that helped refugees succeed and that allowed the United States to resettle at such a massive scale. 

In the decades since, refugee resettlement has shifted away from a dispersed, grassroots, community-led structure toward a centralized, corporate structure in the name of efficiency and standardization. This has no doubt brought many benefits to refugees, who can now expect a similar resettlement experience no matter where they are placed, and to those tasked with welcoming them, who can now rely on outside resources, expertise, and support to do their jobs. However, this has also shifted the balance of power away from the communities where refugees will ultimately live. When refugees’ neighbors are no longer included and invested in their resettlement, the natural result is that refugees become more isolated and slower to integrate, and their neighbors become resentful or even fearful. This is what we’ve seen in cities all across the United States. Refugee resettlement has become the responsibility of resettlement agencies—corporations with headquarters in Washington, DC, and New York—rather than communities. 

Northwest Arkansas has proven that when communities are given the chance to design and build their own resettlement process for themselves, everybody wins. Under the Biden administration, the U.S. resettlement program should focus on finding and investing in new communities like mine, where grassroots support is genuine and neighbors are willing to put in the work to help refugees thrive. Then they should treat these communities like partners, giving them a voice in determining how many refugees to resettle and how to go about welcoming them. I guarantee Fayetteville is not the only city with churches willing to furnish refugees’ houses, employers eager to offer refugees jobs, and citizens looking for ways to love to their refugee neighbors. If the U.S. resettlement program aims to truly “build back better,” these communities must become its foundation.

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