During the last Republican debate, Senator Rand Paul expressed opposition to resettling Syrian refugees because of his concern about government spending. “Charity is about giving your own money,” Paul declared. “Charity isn’t giving someone else’s money.” Paul lavished praise on private efforts to aid refugees, especially faith-based projects. “I’ve given to my church,” he said. “My church has helped people that came from Bosnia. That’s a good thing.” 

Paul’s remarks misrepresent how the American refugee resettlement system operates. In the United States, refugee resettlement is hardly the big government program that Paul alleges it is. Rather, it is an expansive public-private, church-state enterprise in which government delegates the work of resettlement to private agencies, including religious organizations. The church efforts that Paul himself celebrates and supports are, ironically, a central feature of the government program that he opposes.

How Resettlement Actually Works

For over half a century, refugee assistance and resettlement in the United States has depended on private voluntary agencies,. These hold official contracts with the federal government — the Department of State and the Department of Health and Human Services — to provide initial reception and placement services for refugees as well as long-term programs to support refugees’ integration into U.S. society.

The voluntary agencies that have had the largest involvement in refugee work are associated with religious communities. These faith-based voluntary agencies include Church World Service, Episcopal Migration Ministries, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Migration and Refugee Services, and World Relief.

Refugee resettlement involves complex and coordinated international and domestic work. Possessing both a professional staff and an army of volunteers drawn from their own religious communities, these organizations have a long history of success. The compassionate and competent work of the voluntary agencies enabled the United States to resettle European refugees after the Second World War, Hungarian and Cuban refugees during the ‘50s and ‘60s, and Southeast Asian refugees during the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Refugee resettlement is a public-private, church-state endeavor at the local level, too. In communities across the United States, the voluntary agencies rely on the manpower, money, and moral drive offered by congregations, community groups, and individual volunteers. Working with their local affiliates (for example, Catholic Charities or Lutheran Social Service), voluntary agencies often enlist congregations to serve as “sponsors” for refugee families.

Paul’s suggestion that the federal resettlement program brings over refugees to put them on food stamps and government housing fails to acknowledge that it is private organizations — voluntary agencies, local charities, and congregations — that carry much of the financial burden. While refugee resettlement is supposed to be jointly supported by public and private funds, government contributions to refugee resettlement have diminished significantly in recent years, leaving voluntary agencies to pick up a growing share of the cost. A 2008 study conducted by the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service found that the State Department funded only 39% of the actual cost of resettling a refugee. The remaining 61% was covered by private giving. 

Resettlement Success: The Southeast Asian Case

How effective is this public-private resettlement system? A look back at the effort to resettle Vietnamese, Lao, Cambodian, and Hmong refugees after the Vietnam War indicates that the United States is very capable at aiding and resettling refugees. Between 1975 and 2000, the United States opened its doors to approximately one million Southeast Asian people displaced by war. It was an enormous undertaking and, by and large, a successful one — in many ways a model for a just and humane response to the current refugee crisis.

Then as today, resettlement was a joint project of government and private charity. Overseas, voluntary agencies and churches worked in refugee camps, where they provided essential medical care and prepared refugees for resettlement. In the United States, voluntary agencies secured sponsors and coordinated initial placement and resettlement services.

Locally, the resettlement of Southeast Asian refugees relied not simply on government, but on the goodness of everyday Americans. Thousands of individuals across America contributed to the resettlement effort. They sheltered refugees in their own homes, collected furniture and clothing, provided free medical and dental care, enrolled children in school, promised refugees jobs, and taught refugees to speak English, ride public transit, and shop in grocery stores. Even the elderly and infirm got involved: residents at the Oak Terrace Nursing Home in Minnesota offered to set aside part of their building as a temporary refugee resettlement center.

Why did so many people choose to get involved? For one, many Americans were motivated to help because of their opposition to the communist dictatorships from which refugees were fleeing. Other people’s involvement in resettlement grew out of their opposition to the Vietnam War. For these people, resettlement was an act of penance for the nation’s sins in Southeast Asia.

Many drew inspiration from their religious beliefs. One Church World Service brochure declared that Jesus “was Himself a refugee”; Catholic and Episcopalian pamphlets cited Matthew 25 and the Christian responsibility to “welcome the stranger.” Indeed, religious groups were particularly active partners to the government refugee program during this period. At a moment when religious groups began to splinter into liberal and conservative wings, concern for refugees saw a rare moment of consensus. (See Robert Wuthnow’s The Restructuring of American Religion) Communities across the theological spectrum — from evangelical and liberal Protestants to Catholics and Jews –joined forces with government officials to rally public support for welcoming refugees. By 1981, religious voluntary agencies were resettling almost three-quarters of the Vietnamese, Cambodian, Lao, and Hmong refugees in the United States.

Beyond religious conviction, sometimes it was simply witnessing human suffering that compelled action. For Kathleen Vellenga of Saint Paul, Minnesota, it was news footage of Vietnamese refugees crowding onto helicopters during the fall of Saigon that jolted her to action. She convinced members of her congregation, Dayton Avenue Presbyterian Church, to sponsor a refugee family, and less than a year later, she and members of three local churches welcomed the first Lao Hmong refugees to resettle in the Twin Cities, a community that would later become the vibrant epicenter of Hmong American life.

As Americans grapple with their anxiety about welcoming up to 10,000 Syrian refugees in the coming year, we need to remember that, forty years ago, Americans held similar fears about Southeast Asian refugees. Americans worried that Southeast Asian refugees would be Communist subversives, jobless dependents and backwards inassimilables. But today, these Southeast Asian refugees are viewed as model, productive members of American society: physicians who heal our communities, teachers who educate our children, members of our legislatures and armed forces. Their achievements and contributions are proof that we have resettled refugees effectively in the past. We are capable of doing so again, but only if there is a shared commitment by government, voluntary agencies, charities, and churches.

For Senator Paul to use opposition to welfare as a reason to reject Syrian refugees ignores the fact that private generosity has long been at the core of our successful resettlement system. His rejection of refugees out of concerns about government spending contradicts the very thing that he claims to support: private charity and faith-based benevolence. In the end, the generosity of private groups — including his own church — hardly matters if government leaders like himself refuse to open doors to refugees in the first place.