Just over a year ago, though it seems longer for various reasons, Spring Institute for Intercultural Learning made the difficult decision to permanently close Denver’s beloved Spring Café. The eatery and meeting spot was popular among Capitol Hill residents, tourists, and workers alike, but it was founded on a mission we were struggling to fulfill.
Meant to be an on-the-job customer-service-industry training program for immigrants and refugees, sharp decreases in refugee arrivals under the Trump administration created a staff shortage that rendered the mission unsustainable.
Our only solace at the time was to consider the closure as a call to action condemning the dismantling of our nation’s long-standing refugee resettlement program.
As the Biden administration assumes office, I echo that call with the added assertion that we face the challenge — and should embrace the opportunity — to not only repair the damage of the past four years, but to more fully renew our country’s historic commitment to welcoming refugees.
For decades, the U.S. Refugee Resettlement program held bipartisan support as both a moral obligation on behalf of the world’s most prosperous nation and as a means of invigorating our democracy while acting as a pressure valve for other countries that serve as the main entry points for millions fleeing global violence and persecution.
Colorado’s vibrant immigrant population includes not only Spanish speakers from Mexico and South America, but also individuals from throughout Africa, Asia, and Europe who bring with them over 120 languages.
Many of these people — over 60,000 in the past 40 years — arrived in our state through the refugee resettlement program, enriching our communities with their diverse talents and cultural offerings while rebuilding their lives and becoming new Americans.
Under the Trump administration, the U.S. refugee resettlement program was cut to the brink of extinction. Yearly caps on refugee admissions, which had averaged about 75,000 under both Republican and Democratic administrations over the past four decades, were sharply and repeatedly lowered, plunging to an absurd 15,000 set for 2021. Actual resettlement figures were even fewer.
Colorado, which had previously welcomed over 2,000 refugees annually, received under 600 in 2020, leaving many resettled here without hope of ever reuniting with the loved ones they left behind and still other refugees stranded abroad.
At the same time, funding dwindled across the country for the service infrastructure to help refugees resettle successfully.
Incoming President Joe Biden has already pledged to restore the program by raising the cap on new refugee admissions to 125,000. This is a laudable first step, but for it to be truly practical, a significant restoration of the resettlement infrastructure — including the nation’s nine designated resettlement agencies and the thousands of organizations, like mine, that assist with integration efforts — is also required.
When the Refugee Act was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in 1980, adequate resources were devoted to ensure that people who had literally lost everything — homes, businesses, friends, loved ones, and all that was familiar — were able to meaningfully restart their lives in a new country where many didn’t even speak the language.
Refugees resettled in the 1980s received generous support, in the form of up to 18 months of cash assistance, to learn English, get safely housed, gain job training, and become integrated community members. That investment helped those generations of refugees, most of whom came from Vietnam and Southeast Asia, become successful, patriotic, and prosperous Americans.
Over the years, even prior to 2017, cash assistance had been whittled away to only eight months maximum, requiring these new Americans to quickly take any available job, often getting consigned to underemployment for the rest of their lives.
While some Americans object that directing funds to refugees takes away from other priorities, in reality it constitutes a smart economic investment. Study after study has found that refugees put more money back into the economy than they receive as an initial form of assistance. Taxes from refugees contribute to critical programs for veterans, education, transportation, and other initiatives that strengthen our communities.
In short, the more refugees are able to integrate fully and find livelihoods that utilize their talents and experience, the more they give back.
The Biden administration has a unique chance to not only reverse the most recent damage to the refugee resettlement program, but also to elevate it to its former, highly successful levels.
Let’s reclaim our role as the world’s preeminent and most generous country in refugee resettlement, by opening our doors to larger numbers of the world’s most vulnerable people, and by offering them the resources they need to become successful Americans. We will all benefit.
Paula Schriefer is president and CEO of Denver’s Spring Institute for Intercultural Learning, a nonprofit working to build brighter futures for individuals and foster more inclusive organizations.
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