How Cities Can Absorb Waves of Refugees


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By Karen Jacobsen, Tufts University

Many immigrants to the United States are fleeing violence and persecution—here’s how the federal government can help cities absorb them.
Immigration has become a defining issue in the 2024 elections and a major challenge in many US cities. Over the past several years, wars and armed conflict, violent persecution and desperate poverty have displaced millions of people worldwide and propelled the arrival in the US of thousands seeking protection, mainly at the US–Mexico border.
Refugee welcome signLarge cities such as New York, Miami, Denver, and Boston are struggling to house new arrivals and meet their basic needs. Cities are looking for ways to support these new arrivals—some for a short time, others for months, years, or permanently.
I study forced migration, government responses to it, and how refugees and asylum-seekers integrate into new settings. My focus is on humanitarian arrivals—people who enter the US legally as asylum-seekers, resettled refugees, or under various temporary protection programs, also known as parole.
In total, the Biden administration has admitted or authorized admitting roughly 1.5 million people under these programs since 2021. Cities need help to cope with these waves of new arrivals. The good news is that with support, refugees and people receiving asylum successfully integrate into life in the US and contribute more to the national economy than they cost.
Entering on humanitarian grounds
People immigrate to the United States for many reasons and receive different types of visas and treatment when they arrive. Here are the main types of humanitarian admissions:
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—Humanitarian parole
The federal government can give certain groups permission to enter or remain in the US if it finds “urgent humanitarian or significant public benefit reasons” for doing so. People who enter through parole programs must have an approved financial supporter in the US. They typically can stay for one to two years and may apply for authorization to work.
Currently, the federal government is admitting a maximum of 30,000 people per month under a parole program for immigrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. The Biden administration has also admitted people from Afghanistan and Ukraine through other parole programs. In total, the Biden administration has admitted more than 1 million people through these programs.

—Refugees and asylees

People who can show that they have experienced persecution, or have a well-founded fear of being persecuted based on their race, religion, nationality, social affiliations, or political opinion, can apply for refugee status or asylum. Asylum is granted to people who are already in the US. Refugee status is provided to people who are vetted abroad and approved for resettlement.
Resettled refugees and people granted asylum can apply for authorization to work in the US. After one year in the US, they are eligible to apply for legal permanent residence, also known as a green card.
For fiscal year 2024, Biden has approved a maximum of 125,000 refugee admissions. There is no limit on the number of people who may be granted asylum each year.

Applicants for asylum, however, must go before an immigration judge in the US, who will decide whether their fears qualify them to be allowed to remain. US immigration courts are heavily backed up, with more than 2 million asylum applications pending. Asylum applicants can remain in the US while their case is pending, but they cannot receive work permits for six months after they apply for asylum.

Where new immigrants settle
As has been the case since at least 2010, Texas and Florida are top US destinations for migrants, along with cities in New York, Illinois, and Colorado. Counties where new migrants make up more than 2 percent of the population include Queens, New York; Miami-Dade, Florida; and Denver, Colorado.
In cities, many humanitarian immigrants find work in the hospitality and health care industries. Others move to small towns in rural areas, where they work in long-standing migrant sectors such as meatpacking, health services, and agriculture.
People who come with an intent to stay are motivated to put down roots and become part of their new communities. But becoming established can take time, and newcomers’ needs can stress city neighborhoods that are already struggling with housing and employment problems. The months immediately following their arrival is the time when refugee newcomers need support of all kinds.

Working with diaspora communities
New arrivals often move to particular towns or city neighborhoods because they know that people from their country are well established there. These residents are familiar with the new arrivals’ home language and cultures and understand their needs.
For example, there are over 40,000 Ukrainians in Rochester, New York, and about 134,000 in New York City. The US also has large communities of parolees, including Haitians, Venezuelans, and Cubans, and long-standing diasporas of resettled refugees and asylum recipients from many parts of the world.

I see established diasporas as a critical resource for supporting new immigrants and maximizing benefits for host communities. By working with diaspora individuals and families to support new arrivals, federal and state governments could redirect funds that are now going to hotels and shelters.
For example, Boston has struggled in recent months to house large numbers of Haitian immigrants, placing several thousand families at hotel and motel sites—an unusual and expensive practice born of necessity. An alternative might be to offer cash payments or tax breaks to some of the state’s 81,050 Haitian residents in return for housing new Haitian arrivals for a few months.
Diaspora households can offer information about navigating city bureaucracies, finding jobs, and accessing banking services, in addition to the comfort of familiar food and company. These communities can be an enormous help to new immigrants as they become established and begin to contribute to the city.
Such incentives could also be aimed at non-diaspora communities and people who are willing to help newcomers. A direct community support system, with safeguards built in to protect both the refugees and their hosts, would cost a city or state much less than paying for hotel rooms.

Faster work permits
Speeding up work authorizations for new arrivals can shorten the time they need support from the government. Under federal law, most nonresident foreign nationals must obtain an employment authorization document in order to apply for jobs in the US.
Currently, although the Biden administration is trying to move more quickly, these applications are taking more than six months to process. Once immigrants have work permits in hand, diasporas and host neighborhoods could receive tax breaks or other economic benefits in return for helping them find work.
There are other things cities and the federal government can do to support new humanitarian arrivals. Banks could be encouraged to support refugee business, as some are already doing. For example, Re:start Financial is a neobank—a tech company that provides online banking services—based in Austin, Texas, and founded in 2021 by a group of immigrants. It allows immigrants who do not yet have permanent addresses or Social Security numbers to open free online banking accounts with nontraditional documentation from their home countries.
With adequate support, new arrivals usually find their feet and become self-reliant within a few months. Using federal and state resources to enlist host neighborhoods and diaspora communities in this process would help ensure that everyone benefits.

Karen Jacobsen is the Henry J. Leir Chair in Global Migration in the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. This commentary is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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