How grassroots efforts rewrote history to place communities' needs first in U.S. Refugee Resettlement Policy


By most measures, Texas might be the least likely source for new methods of refugee resettlement to arise today. 

woman with camera

By most measures, Texas might be the least likely source for new methods of refugee resettlement to arise today. 

Indeed, the state is largely responsible for the nationwide adoption of our current system of rapid employment but has since traced a convoluted path from devising the model to discarding it altogether. Now suddenly, local policymakers find themselves contemplating approaches that might better align with the imminent needs of newly arriving families.

At one time, Reagan administration officials would leave Texas in bewilderment, considering how the state’s approach to resettling families rapidly could be shared with coastal and Midwest states. In Houston, local resources—from the Vietnamese and Jewish communities, especially—played an immense role in allowing federal agencies to maintain a narrow focus on employment outcomes. Meanwhile, advocates in other states were fighting against the notion that longer periods of public assistance were making refugee communities dependent on welfare. By 1990, with the help of Texas as a central example, funding support periods were cut from 24 months to eight. As a result, states were asked to forgo long-run perspectives and replace them with short-term employment priorities.

When our research team, led by Kinder Scholar Dr. Yehuda Sharim, first began investigating the consequences of rapid employment for families in Houston, the system had gone nearly three decades without reform. Despite significant shifts in refugee demographics, the disappearance of reliable local stakeholders, and seismic cuts to state assistance in the transition from Assistance to Families with Dependent Children to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the model built to serve Eastern European refugees in 1990 was being utilized to help survivors of war and genocide navigate new lives. Today, polarized politics makes it nearly impossible to pierce the resettlement policy debate with nonpartisan perspectives. A very different form of deadlock emerged to preclude honest policy analysis at the start of our work.

Over the decades, national lobbying efforts focused on maintaining bipartisan congressional support through a “don’t rock the boat” mentality. Policymakers inserted thick political insulation between refugees and the inscrutable polemics of undocumented migrants or public welfare assistance. Consequently, any effort to ask whether the US system of resettlement was truly positioning families for health, safety and prosperity put that delicate balance in jeopardy.

Instead, advocates for refugees proposed the quota for arrival numbers as a litmus test for the degree to which we maintained our commitment to the values underpinning refugee resettlement. As such, policymakers detached themselves from the input of communities being served.

Fortunately, the vast majority of Houston’s resettlement agency staff were refugees and knew that the status quo could not be sustainably maintained. In search of personal catharsis, our team began a systems analysis.

In the fall of 2015 midway through our first round of agency staff interviews, the strategy to maintain bipartisan support for the U.S. resettlement program collapsed.

A Texas lawmaker was the first to declare that safety concerns outweighed a commitment to the program and that certain nationalities should be excluded from entry. Overnight, any public criticism of the federal system became fodder for a full-fledged existential attack on refugee resettlement, putting our work in an ever-more precarious position. Not long after, Texas chose to withdraw itself from the federal program, altogether, at which point we were in sudden danger of assessing public policy for a program that no longer existed.

If our endeavor to propose reform began with a meager chance of success, then it had absolutely no chance of changing the minds of lawmakers in our state. Yet with our path already set and having built indelible partnerships, there was no turning back. While political grandstanding came from each corner of the political spectrum, committed public servants, nonprofit leaders and local advocates took action.

Without a state refugee coordinator, who was previously responsible for calling quarterly stakeholder meetings, the local agencies called one themselves.

Prior state-led meetings consisted of endlessly monotonous, dispassionately reported metric lists, but now, an animated group gathered in a Catholic Charities meeting room. The floodgates opened about issues that had been hindering communal efforts for decades and previously unimaginable perspectives were now sitting at the head of the table.

Just weeks after the Office of Refugee Resettlement created four regional hubs to disburse funding across the state, our public policy report, “Refugee Realities: Between national challenges and local responsibilities in Houston, TX” was published in June 2018. The publication discussed funding mechanisms that failed to meet the needs of families and incentive structures that needlessly prevented immigrants from achieving economic prosperity.

Since then, the newly emerging model for refugee resettlement in Texas has blazed new trails with local management structures that have an opportunity to utilize communal feedback in the construction of the system for the first time since it was formed.

According to agency staff, the evaluation criteria for grant funding increased tenfold since the South Texas Office for Refugees (STOR) began conducting program oversight. STOR is the local arm of the new resettlement system. Likewise, direct interaction between agencies and STOR’s nearby offices have grown considerable. While utilized metrics are still based on the decades-old system, the shift in oversight opens the door for a more in-depth study of local factors and long-term outcomes. With this, Texas refugee resettlement is once again modeling possibilities for the nation.

Grassroots efforts met a perfect storm of circumstances to occupy a front-row seat in policymaking efforts. However, the movement to position local perspectives into that critical role began long before any doors opened. As history continues to be written, the evidence suggests that those moments when no clear path for reform exists are precisely the most vital times to take action in search of unpaved roads ahead.

Yan Digilov


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