In the past year, the Republican presidential field has demonized refugees, with some candidates vowing to oppose even five-year-old orphans from Syria. Meanwhile, dozens of Republican governors have declared their states off-limits to Syrian refugees.
Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, the conservative Republican chair of the U.S. Senate Homeland Security committee, has a very different proposal: the U.S. could learn about refugee resettlement from Canada.
Johnson is holding a hearing on Wednesday about Canada’s refugee policies. Part of that hearing, he told me in a phone interview today, is focused on a Canadian program that allows nonprofits and other private sector groups to sponsor refugees, paying money to help them resettle in Canada.
"To me that seems like a common sense program,” Johnson said. “I think it would work a whole lot better, whether it’s a religious organization or relatives who are sponsoring them."
In the U.S., refugees are screened by the State Department and then resettled by one of nine nonprofits which contract with the government. The whole process is funded by the federal government—either directly or through subsidies—and some resettlement officials say they're stretched thin for funds.
Our neighbor to the north has a reputation for being more welcoming to refugees. In Canada, any group of at least five people—a family, a neighborhood, a church, a book club—can commit $27,000 to bring a refugee family of four to the country. Their donation means that the resettlement doesn't use taxpayer funds. The group then helps find lodging and resources for the new refugees and support them in their transition.
For example, a group at Ryerson University in Toronto has organized to raise money for Syrian refugees across the last few months. Since July, they’ve raised more than $1 million and brought almost 60 refugees to the Toronto area so far. Students who raised money are now helping organize housing, translation, and English classes for the refugees they sponsored, creating closer personal ties.
“Privately-sponsored refugees do better than government-sponsored refugees,” said Wendy Cukier, an administrator at Ryerson. “I think it’s partly the buy-in in the community. The personal engagement is much higher if you’re actually getting to meet the people who you’re helping.”
A similar program could work in the U.S., advocates say. At its simplest, the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement could create an account for donations from Americans who want to support refugees. Any time the donated funds passed a certain threshold, a new refugee would be allowed to enter, either immediately or in the following fiscal year.
Or, donators could be allowed to target specific individual refugees. A Syrian-American family could donate money to support the resettlement of their relatives stuck in a refugee camp, for example, assuming the relatives pass strict background screenings.
This could appeal to both sides of the political aisle. It would mean more funding for refugee resettlement and more refugees being brought to the U.S., something that many liberals—including the three Democratic Presidential candidates—support. It would also mean a bigger role for the private sector, something close to the hearts of many Republicans.
"It would make the assimilation into society a whole lot easier for refugees if you have people on the ground invested in helping the refugee succeed instead of a bloated government bureaucracy," Johnson said.
Refugee advocates here would disagree with his description of our current policy. But the private sponsorship idea has also won support from organizations like the Syrian American Council and other Muslim advocacy groups. Several Democratic members of Congress have endorsed the idea as well.
You might argue that the program would prioritize refugees with ties to the U.S. at the expense of those who don’t. In fact, it would open up more government-funded refugee slots for people without U.S. ties, argued David Bier, the immigration policy director at the Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank that has studied the policy.
Of course, if private refugee resettlement grew, that could lead to Congress slashing government funding for refugees. That’s an end that might be attractive to some Republicans.
Canada's private refugee sponsorship program has been in place since 1979 and led to the admission of 275,000 refugees. “It’s proven that it can work,” Bier said.
“So far we’ve had a very tepid response to the refugee crisis," he added. "This is an opportunity for the Obama administration to take the lead and say what is our legacy going to be.”
It's not clear that instituting a policy similar to Canada's would necessarily require an act of Congress. President Obama could allow private donations for general refugee resettlement through an executive action, Bier said. Creating something like Canada's program, in which groups and families could select specific refugees, would probably require legislation, he said.
The idea of a conservative Republican trying to learn from Canada on something as politically contentious as refugee resettlement—especially in this election cycle—might seem unlikely. Johnson, a conservative who has also espoused worries that terrorists could infiltrate refugees, said it shouldn't be surprising. “I’m a manufacturer, I come from the private sector,” he said. “I’m a problem solver. You try to steal good ideas from wherever you get them.” He said he hoped Republican presidential candidates paid attention to the idea.
Johnson's hearing on Wednesday isn't just about Canada's refugee sponsorship program—he's also studying whether terrorists could masquerade as refugees to Canada and then slip across the Canadian border. “I think there’s been a great deal of legitimate concerns raised about ISIS potentially infiltrating into the refugee population,” he said. “It’s the longest border we have of any other country and it’s not secure.”
Those concerns aside, his support for allowing private refugee sponsorship suggests that this, at least, is an area where we can return some bipartisan sanity to the debate over refugees.
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.