Refugee Resettlement in Utah: Lessons on Community and Religious Engagement

By: Coby Vail

November 24, 2020

Rethinking Religion and U.S. Refugee Resettlement

Since the modern U.S. refugee program began, Utah has been a significant site for refugee resettlement in the United States, with Salt Lake City ranking twenty-fifth among U.S. metro areas for refugee resettlement.

In Utah, two resettlement agencies—Catholic Community Services and the International Rescue Committee—guide and support refugees through the initial adjustment period following arrival. Refugee integration in U.S. communities depends on the policies and initiatives of state and local leaders. Utah is the only U.S. state which has required two years of resettlement agency-led case management in order to provide more support for vulnerable refugees and those with higher barriers to integration. 

Organizations that support refugee resettlement also include universities, school districts, municipalities and county governments to small nonprofits, religious institutions, and the private sector. These partners meet together monthly to discuss issues, coordinate services, and understand each other. This open community among service providers is a reflection of broad community support and part of what sets Utah apart, as a politically conservative state where refugees and migrants are welcomed with open arms. 

Religious Dimensions

In the wake of the November 2015 Paris attacks, security concerns regarding the resettlement of Syrian refugees to the United States led 30 Republican governors to declare that their states would not accept refugees from Syria. Only one Republican governor took a different course in welcoming Syrian refugees: Utah Governor Gary Herbert. 

Governor Herbert released a statement that: “Utahns are well known for our compassion for those who are fleeing the violence in their homeland, and we will work to do all we can to ease their suffering without compromising public safety.” Given overall conservative political trends in Utah, the welcome it has consistently extended to refugees and migrants is significant. Much but not all of this phenomenon can be explained by Utah’s Mormon heritage and experience, where members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) make up a majority of the population across the state. 

Utahns who are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints feel a particular affinity for arriving refugees. A 2017 survey asked registered Utah voters “Do you support or oppose a U.S. policy change to suspend or severely curtail acceptance of refugee from war-torn or terrorism-beset nations.” The survey found that 55% of registered voters in Utah somewhat or strongly opposed a suspension or curtailing of refugees from war-torn or terrorism-beset nations.

For many Mormons, their support for refugees is rooted in their own history. The Mormon story is one that rests heavily on the idea that Mormons migrated to Utah due to persecution and that they arrived in Utah as refugees seeking religious freedom. This is not unknown to Utah’s civic, public, and religious leaders, who have called upon this history to advocate for the support of refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants alike on numerous occasions. In April 2016, Latter-day Saint leaders used the occasion of their largest conference of the year to extort members to participate in an initiative entitled “I Was a Stranger,” encouraging Latter-day Saints to find ways to support refugees in their communities and to imagine their lives if they were refugees. Within hours of the conference, a usually steady stream of volunteer applications turned into hundreds, even thousands, of willing volunteers.

More formally, the Mormon Church has played a significant role as a service provider, primarily through the Latter-day Saint Humanitarian Center. The U.S. refugee system places importance on rapid employment in order for refugees to support themselves before their limited financial support runs out. For refugees with limited literacy skills, this often comes at the expense of their ability to master English. Part-time English classes remain an option, but a labor-intensive job with a demanding schedule leaves many refugees too exhausted or unable to participate in outside education activities. 

The Latter-day Saint Humanitarian Center prepares humanitarian supplies destined for worldwide distribution, but it also serves as a job training site for refugees and immigrants. At the center, participants commit to a yearlong program including employment and English-language training. For half the day, participants work in the Humanitarian Center preparing supplies, learning job skills, and preparing for future employment. The other half of the day is spent learning English. Participants are paid for a full day’s work. At the end of the year, employment counselors help graduates of the program to find full-time employment. 

Further formal support includes grants to both resettlement agencies to purchase mattresses, frames, bedding, and household items for each arriving refugee. The Utah State Refugee Services Office has for several years encouraged refugees in Utah to charter their own community organizations with the goal of identifying and filling some of the gaps in integration and services. A diverse array of refugee-led nonprofits from as many as 20 different refugee communities have emerged in response. The state administers the Refugee Community-Based Organization Capacity Building Grant, which supports the programming of refugee-led organizations. In 2019, the Utah State Legislature appropriated $100,000 in state funds for the program, and for the first time, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints made a $100,000 contribution to the same fund. This was done with the understanding that community-led development by current and former refugees themselves is the greatest predictor of success.

Community-led development is a significant pillar of Utah’s resettlement program in which refugees themselves become the drivers of their own integration. This also includes the role of a variety of religious actors and faith communities in Utah. A focus on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints risks overshadowing the role they play in facilitating integration and providing a web of support. The U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops through Catholic Community Services has played a historic role in refugee resettlement in Utah. Likewise, the Islamic Society of Greater Salt Lake, Calvary Baptist Church, Seventh Day Adventist Church, and many other denominations have been the place that refugees have called their spiritual home. In some cases, refugees have organized and founded their own religious congregations. 

​Lessons Learned

In Utah, experience has shown that refugee success lies on a web of support: in learning English, from friends in the local community, as well as a rich community life through a faith community or other cultural organization.

The 2010 Utah Compact, oriented not towards refugees but immigration, offers insights about the approach civic and religious leaders in Utah take to the broader topic of migration and refugees today. The Utah Compact arose in response to heated national and local debate around the topic of immigration. Its final section focuses on a free society and states: “Immigrants are integrated into communities across Utah. We must adopt a humane approach to this reality, reflecting our unique culture, history and spirit of inclusion. The way we treat immigrants will say more about us as a free society and less about our immigrant neighbors. Utah should always be a place that welcomes people of goodwill.”

Almost 10 years later, the Utah Compact remains a topic of conversation in public policy and business circles, and the public remains largely committed to its principles. In March 2019, 120 religious, business, and civic leaders in Utah recommitted themselves to the principles of the compact through an official resigning ceremony. These leaders reiterated their support for the compact, the need for federal solutions, and a humane immigration system that does not separate families. As the Biden administration recommits the United States to higher refugee admissions, deeper engagement in the work of integration will be required in welcoming communities across the country. Utah offers a roadmap for states, regardless of political affiliation, to take action.

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