White House Looks to Private Sector to Increase Refugee Admissions Outside the Resettlement Program

An Attempt to Circumvent Numerical Caps

By Nayla Rush on July 6, 2016

With the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis, the Obama administration is more than ever committed to helping refugees, whether in their host countries in the Middle East or in the United States. U.S. humanitarian assistance to the Syrian crisis reached $5.1 billion this year. President Obama has already pledged to bring into the United States 10,000 Syrian refugees via the refugee resettlement program this fiscal year (which ends September 30).

The administration is also looking for "alternative pathways" to admit more Syrian refugees outside the refugee resettlement program, to meet the target set by the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) of providing at least 480,000 places worldwide through resettlement and private sponsorships (such as employment contracts, student scholarships etc.) to Syrian refugees over three years (2016-2018).

President Obama will also be hosting the "Leaders' Summit on the Global Refugee Crisis" in New York this September 20 on the margins of the UN General Assembly. The president will be asking the world's leaders to commit to the following: "increase funding to humanitarian appeals and international organizations, admit more refugees through resettlement or other legal pathways, and increase refugees' self-reliance and inclusion through opportunities for education and legal work."

On the domestic front, The White House announced on June 30 a "Call to Action for the U.S. private sector to stand with the Administration and make new, measurable, and significant commitments that will have a durable impact on refugees residing in countries on the frontlines of the global refugee crisis and in countries of resettlement, like the United States." Fifteen founding companies are joining the president in this effort: Accenture, Airbnb, Chobani, Coursera, Goldman Sachs, Google, HP, IBM, JPMorgan Chase & Co., LinkedIn, Microsoft, Mastercard, UPS, TripAdvisor, and Western Union.

In parallel, the White House launched a new website called Partnership for Refugees "[t]o facilitate private sector commitments in response to the President's Call to Action." Refugees' needs are to be addressed primarily in the impact areas of education, employment, and enablement:

  • "Ensuring they can access schools and learning programs"
  • "Increasing employment and business opportunities"
  • "Enabling access to the resources they need to become self-reliant"

In a tweet, Samantha Powers, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, applauded the launch:

The website details numerous ways the private sector can do more, including for example, on the education front:

  • "Establishing scholarship funds to support access to higher education for refugees."
  • "Providing free flights, textbooks and housing assistance to refugees who are traveling to the United States to attend college."

In the area of employment, the "Partnership" is aimed at "[i]ncreasing employment opportunities for refugees and supporting refugees' reentry into the workforce." This might be achieved by "creating job opportunities for refugees, including by hiring refugees" or by providing, or helping refugees obtain "vocational training and needed language-skills; technical assistance and seed funding to allow them to start new businesses; capital to start their own business."

One example of this partnership is between Chipotle and the International Rescue Committee:

"The IRC is a preferred employment partner for Chipotle, and IRC works with Chipotle restaurant managers and regional HR recruiters in every US city where IRC offices and Chipotle restaurants overlap (~24 cities) . . . Chipotle has underwritten IRC's initiative to equip refugee and immigrant farmer entrepreneurs with the tools they need to pursue urban farming to grow fresh, culturally appropriate produce to feed themselves, their families, and their communities in 9 US cities."

Another food enterprise, New York-based yogurt company Chobani, is proud of its "diversity and inclusiveness" mission and is more than ever committed to hiring refugees: "today roughly 30 percent of its manufacturing workforce are resettled refugees."

On the "Enablement" front, numerous factors "can impede a refugee's ability to attend school or enter the workforce." Those can range from: access to financial services, technology (wireless service, internet connectivity), to housing and transport. Help here can pertain to "covering costs of charter flight to bring resettled refugees to the United States (or to another country of resettlement)."

Enablement can also take place by providing financial advice and assistance. JPMorgan Chase and the International Rescue Committee are working together to assist refugees. As explained in the website:

"Refugees arrive with little savings, no assets, and no understanding of the complex US financial system in which they find themselves. The absence of basic budgeting skills and a lack of understanding of credit can result in poor financial management and early missteps that can haunt a refugee family for many years after their arrival . . . JPMC's investment has enabled IRC to 1) bolster the integration of existing financial coaching efforts in the Oakland and San Diego offices and 2) to develop a model for financial coaching that meets the unique needs of IRC's refugee and immigrant clients . . ."

These are just a few examples of private engagements and areas of action the Obama administration is pushing for. Help provided is evidently not restricted to Syrian refugees but, in view of the scope of the Syrian crisis and the specific attention it is receiving lately (not the least from President Obama himself), it is safe to say that they are the main "people of concern" here. Syrian refugees already in the United States will benefit from these measures but many undeniably will be admitted under those private schemes outside the formal refugee resettlement program.

The White House's new strategy is clear: "helping refugees isn't just up to governments—every American can play a role too." While the official refugee resettlement program is limited in scope and subject to oversight, private sponsorships are not subject to those numerical limits. This administration strategy is calling on Americans to provide a "Path to Safe Haven" and support refugees in the United States and abroad. These "paths" are most certainly meant to include those "alternative legal pathways" or "private sponsorships" of Syrian refugees that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, has been calling for. Let us not forget that a the upcoming Refugee Summit, President Obama will be asking world leaders to "[d]ouble the number of resettlement slots and alternative legal pathways for admission that are available to refugees...." (Emphasis added.) You can't ask others what you're not prepared to do yourself, right?

President Obama promised he will bring into the United States 10,000 Syrian refugees via the refugee resettlement program this fiscal year. This administration is right on track, as we predicted; 5,000 made it already, as DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson told the Senate Judiciary Committee last week. The other 5,000 will likely arrive before the Refugee Summit September 20.

Meanwhile, these additional "private partnerships or sponsorships" have started. And while we can keep track of those being resettled here under the refugee resettlement program, we won't be able to trace how many more will be coming through these private detours.