Refugees are pouring out of the Middle East in record numbers. The government has lifted refugee limits slightly, but it has proven inadequate in handling this challenge alone. When President Reagan was faced with a similar crisis, he took a different approach, allowing charities to sponsor refugees and cover the costs of their resettlement. President Obama should follow the Gipper’s lead.
When President Reagan was elected in 1980, hundreds of thousands of Cuban refugees had just arrived en mass on the shores of Miami. Reagan worked hard to secure their safe resettlement, but he also sought better policies to head off future crises. “We shall seek new ways to integrate refugees into our society,” he said just after assuming office.
As anti-communists fled Cuba in record numbers, Reagan fulfilled his promise, creating the Private Sector Initiative (PSI) in 1986. As Reagan explained in his announcement of the program, refugees under the PSI would be admitted “upon the availability of private sector funding sufficient to cover the essential and reasonable costs of such admissions.”
Private sponsoring organizations had to agree to provide basic needs for refugees until the refugee became self-sufficient or permanent residents. American families and members of local communities pitched in. The number of volunteer sponsors and the amount of money raised determined how many refugees were admitted.
At least 16,000 refugees entered under the privately-funded category from 1987 to 1993 — mainly Cubans and Soviet Jews. According to Princeton Lyman, Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration Affairs from 1989 to 1991, thousands of Pentecostal Christians fleeing the Soviet Union were allowed to enter through privately-funded resettlement as well.
The program proved to be a success. Refugee Coordinator Jewel LaFontant Mankorious told Congress the office was “very proud” of PSI in 1991. The Office of Refugee Resettlement’s 1990 report to Congress said that the agency, which was tasked with helping refugees, “strongly endorses” PSI and was “committed to encouraging the involvement of the private sector in refugee resettlement whenever possible.”
Most of PSI’s success was due to local efforts. Churches, synagogues, community organizations, and families raised funds and supplied services for thousands of people each year.
Keep in mind that this was in the 1980s and 90s. Now, in the Internet age, it would be much easier to match refugees with volunteer host families, and to raise the money necessary to cover their resettlement costs. A combination of big donors and grassroots crowdfunding campaigns could easily support a large-scale private resettlement effort.
Hamdi Ulukaya, the founder of Chobani Greek yogurt, has already promised to spend $700 million to aid refugees. A promotional push from the Obama administration for a crowdfunding campaign could raise millions more. A Kickstarter for the UN Refugee Agency promoted by the administration raised over one million dollars for refugee camps overseas.
Americans have donated hundreds of millions to aid the victims of other tragedies. The U.S. private sector donated a remarkable $3.16 billion to relief efforts after the 2004 tsunami in Asia–an indication of how Americans might respond to the opportunity to save refugees.
American ethnic organizations have already endorsed the idea of private refugee resettlement. A group led by Syrian American organizations sent a letter last month to President Obama requesting that he reinstate the PSI program. “Private refugee sponsorship remains an optimal, fiscally responsible, and humane manner by which to resettle refugees,” they wrote.
They have been joined by several prominent voices in Congress. Sen. Ron Johnson, Chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, has expressed interest in the idea, and Reps. Zoe Lofgren and John Conyers, ranking members on the Judiciary Committee and its immigration subcommittee, have both endorsed private resettlement.
Some oppose admitting refugees on national-security grounds, even if the cost of resettlement is privately funded. They should relax. Over the past several decades, America has admitted millions of refugees, including hundreds of Middle Easterners. Not one of them has committed an act of terrorism in the U.S. Law enforcement and careful screening have proven they can handle the threat.
In his farewell address, Reagan recounted the story of an American sailor who encountered refugees lost at sea. When a refugee spotted the soldier, he yelled, “Hello, American sailor. Hello, freedom man.” For Reagan, to welcome refugees was to reinforce this connection between America and freedom. We can only wonder what that refugee would have thought had the sailor glided on by.
Reagan saw that welcoming refugees was both humanitarianism and good foreign policy, and his private resettlement program allowed Americans to further both. President Obama should follow his example and let American generosity be part of the answer to this crisis. There should be no arbitrary limits on the charity of American citizens.
David Bier is Director of Immigration Policy at the Niskanen Center, a libertarian nonprofit in D.C.