Refugee Resettlement and Faith Communities

Tuesday, March 1, 2022
Bryan Woolston/REUTERS

Deputy Director, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, U.S. Department of State

President and CEO, Church World Service


Vice President for National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

Kelly A. Gauger, deputy director of refugee admissions at the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, and Rick Santos, president and CEO of Church World Service, discuss U.S. responses to refugee resettlement and the role faith communities play in refugee assistance.

Learn more about CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy Program.


FASKIANOS: Welcome to CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy webinar series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach at CFR.

As a reminder, this webinar is on the record, and the audio, video, and transcript will be available on our website, CFR.org, and on our iTunes podcast channel, Religion and Foreign Policy. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.

We’re delighted to have Kelly Gauger and Rick Santos with us today. Kelly just learned that she needed to do this, to step in for Nancy Izzo Jackson, who has gone overseas, given the events that are unfolding over there.

So, Kelly Gauger, thank you for being with us. She is the deputy director in the Office of Refugee Admissions at the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. Her work includes oversight of the administration’s annual report to Congress on proposed refugee admissions, development of the bureau’s budget for the Refugee Admissions Program, and managing oversight of its seven resettlement support centers worldwide. She also helps manage the bureau’s relationship with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Organization for Migration, and refugee resettlement colleagues in governments around the world. And she joined the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration in 1999 and has served in a variety of positions, obviously, before becoming deputy in 2011.

Rick Santos is the president and CEO of Church World Service. He previously served Church World Service as a program officer in Vietnam, then as a coordinator of strategic planning and evaluation. He has held positions as director of communication and advocacy at International Relief and Development, and as the president and CEO of IMA World Health. He has more than two decades of experience working for and with faith-based organizations, including more than a decade of living and working in Asia.

So thank you both for being with us to talk about refugee resettlement and faith communities. And, Kelly, let’s begin with you to talk about—give us some global contexts for resettlement work, the trends that you’ve seen over the course of your time at the bureau, and the role that the United States is playing and can play.

GAUGER: Sure. Thank you. Can you hear me OK?


GAUGER: Great. OK. All right. Thank you to the Council on Foreign Relations for the invitation to join today, and my apologies that Nancy Izzo Jackson can’t be here nor that Sarah Cross, who was supposed to fill in for her, couldn’t be here, who fell ill in the last twenty-four hours.

So it’s my privilege to be able to speak with this group, along with Rick Santos from Church World Service, and to have this opportunity to talk about recent trends in refugee resettlement, and reflect a bit on the long-standing and unique role of the faith-based community in advancing refugee resettlement in the U.S.

This conversation is, of course, a timely one amidst the historic effort that’s been underway to resettle the tens of thousands—actually, seventy-four thousand people, to be exact—who were evacuated here last August and who have been sheltering in domestic military installations for the last six months, awaiting final resettlement to their destinations.

As Rick will discuss, the engagement of the faith-based community has long been the foundational hallmark of refugee resettlement in the United States, prior even to the Refugee Act of 1980, which formally established the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, which we refer to as the USRAP. As we know it today, diverse, wide-ranging, and grassroots coalitions of local faith groups across the country were some of the most active and prominent actors engaged in refugee resettlement.

The Refugee Act of 1980 formalized the State Department’s partnership with the nine national nonprofit organizations, which lead on providing initial reception and placement to newly-arrived refugees resettled in the United States through the USRAP. The faith-based communities’ lasting role in resettlement is evidenced by the fact that six of our nine resettlement agencies, including Church World Service, are faith-based organizations, as well as additional organizations, reflecting the diversity of America’s faith traditions.

Since the creation of the USRAP in 1980, our resettlement agency partners have enabled the United States to resettle over 3 million refugees from more than a hundred countries, who have made a tremendous economic and social contribution to communities across the country. You all probably know that each year the president sets an annual ceiling for refugee admissions, which we work diligently to meet, sometimes under very challenging circumstances.

Although the annual ceiling for refugee admissions to the U.S. historically has fluctuated with highs well over a hundred thousand during parts of the 1980s and early ’90s, and then a fairly consistent ceiling in the range of seventy (thousand) to eighty-five thousand during most of the 2000s, the ceiling hit historic lows in the last four years, in the last administration, including just eighteen thousand in 2020. And as arrivals plummeted in those recent years, so did our international and domestic capacity to resettle refugees, which we’re now working intently to build.

With our new admissions target of 125 thousand for this fiscal year, we are setting an ambitious goal for ourselves, recognizing the difficulty we face in reaching it due both to the diminished capacity and the operational challenges that COVID continues to pose.

Knowing these challenges, we established an initial operating level of sixty-five thousand for fiscal year 2022 when funding our overseas and domestic partners. At a month shy of halfway into the fiscal year—so as of today, we’re at the five-month mark in the fiscal year—we have, unfortunately, admitted just north of eight thousand refugees so far this year, largely, due to the continued impact of COVID overseas where, for the last two years, our operations at both—at all of our resettlement support centers have been challenged, and USCIS went about eighteen months of not conducting any overseas interviews at all, which has seriously impacted our overseas pipeline.

USCIS—we are now back into the field. Most of our resettlement support centers are operating on a nearly full in-person basis except for Ukraine, which I’ll talk about in a little bit, and USCIS is heading back out into the field doing interviews, but just not at the levels that we would like them to, given the number of cases we have queued up for interview. USCIS lost a lot of staff, mostly through attrition, during the last administration, and they are assiduously hiring new staff to beef up their refugee corps to be able to resettle—to be able to interview more people.

Over the last several months, in particular, our resettlement partners have stepped up in extraordinary ways to support the historic effort to resettle newly-arriving Afghans who relocated to the United States. As I said, to date, more than seventy-two thousand Afghans have been resettled into local communities across the country through Operation Allies Welcome, which is the largest influx of arrivals at one time in such a short period in over fifty years, not seen since the Vietnam War.

Resettling this many people in such a short period of time is unprecedented and involves significant efforts from local faith groups and other community partners to welcome refugees at a historic scale and pace.

Over the course of OAW, we have welcomed the engagement of additional faith-based organizations who have helped to expand our capacity to resettle Afghan(s) by entering into new institutional partnerships at a national level with our existing resettlement agency partners.

We’re particularly excited about the new partnership, that I’m sure Rick will speak about, between Islamic Relief USA and Church World Service, marking a significant engagement by the USRAP with an organization grounded in the Muslim faith.

The work of OAW has been taking place against the backdrop of this administration’s efforts to rebuild and expand our domestic resettlement infrastructure, which was significantly decimated in the previous four years. We have made good progress over the last year of this administration with 272 resettlement affiliates currently in operation and supporting the resettlement of refugees through the USRAP—an increase from 199 affiliates just a year ago.

Factoring in the capacity that was rapidly stood up to welcome Afghan newcomers, there are around a hundred additional community partners supporting the resettlement of Afghans. This expansion of our affiliate network is a true testament to the commitment and dedication of faith-based groups alongside our broader range of community and resettlement agency partners to grow resettlement capacity to meet the challenge of resettling tens of thousands of Afghans in a few months while also welcoming refugees from some seventy to eighty different nationalities globally.

And before I turn it over, let me just say a few words about Ukraine because I know that’s of intense interest to a lot of people. The U.S. government is working closely with European allies and partners who will be at the forefront of any response, as well as international organizations and NGOs, to support those displaced internally within Ukraine and those who may seek safety in the neighboring countries.

We commend our European allies and partners for keeping their borders open to Ukrainians who need to seek international protection and for implementing a three-year EU temporary protection directive for Ukrainians. Our cooperation with our European allies and partners allows us to provide immediate assistance on the ground for those who are fleeing Ukraine. The United States is and will continue to be a global leader in international humanitarian response and including in refugee resettlement.

The Department of State—my bureau—will work with UNHCR in our overseas post to determine whether Ukrainians who have fled to another country require resettlement to a third country because they are not safe in their current location.

I will say that we have been—as I think I’ve hinted, we have been incredibly impressed and humbled by the welcome that the neighboring countries to Ukraine have welcomed Ukrainians fleeing to their countries. So we do not anticipate at this time that we will be doing any large-scale refugee resettlement at this stage. We rarely turn to refugee resettlement in the early stages of a conflict. But we will remain open to particularly vulnerable cases who either may be a target of the Russian regime and others who cannot find safety in Poland or Romania or Moldova or any of the neighboring countries.

Let me just—finally, I’ll just finish by saying unrelated to the current conflict, the United States has a long history of resettling Ukrainian and other FSU religious minorities processed under the Lautenberg Amendment, which was first passed in October 1989.

As such, we have the capacity both overseas and domestically to process Ukrainian refugees who meet requirements of the eligibility. Lautenberg cases are processed by our regional resettlement support center based in Kyiv, which we refer to as RSC Eurasia. A lot of their international staff have been evacuated. A lot of the Ukrainian staff, which are an incredible group of young people that I met when I was in Ukraine about two and a half years ago—a lot of them are still in Ukraine and are continuing to work from home, believe it or not, to continue their work on our program.

At this time, we’re not currently departing individuals from Ukraine due to the closure of Ukrainian airspace. We had to cancel about 170 people’s flights this week and we’re looking at another, I believe, 84 next week. The office that we have enlarged in Chișinău, Moldova, can arrange departures for approved Ukrainian Lautenberg applicants who are USCIS approved and who have completed all USRAP processing requirements.

So we have tried to widely publicize the fact both on our website—the RSC website—and all email communications, that those Lautenberg cases which were being processed in Ukraine, and who have changed location are instructed to write to the RSC in Eurasia at [email protected] to update their location and contact details, and if the cases are ready for departure and in a location where we can organize their departure, they’ll be informed of next steps.

So why don’t I stop there? And I’ll save anything else for the Q&A.

FASKIANOS: Thank you, Kelly. That was a great context for us in what’s happening today.

So, Rick, let’s go to you to talk about the role that faith communities have and continue to play in refugee assistance and what you’re doing at CWS.

SANTOS: Great. So thank you, Irina, and I appreciate the Council inviting me today to talk about faith communities and resettlement.

Maybe I’ll start by going backwards a little bit, creating a little bit of context for this conversation and, frankly, my experiences over the last twenty-five years of doing not just humanitarian work, but relief and development work over—across the globe with faith-based communities and partners.

I think one of the first things I just want to say—I think it gets lost in so much of our conversations today—is, actually, the faith community historically has been, actually, a very innovative group. We’ve been on the forefront and cutting edge of a lot of different things, including refugee resettlement.

One of the experiences I had very early on in my career, I was based in Thailand from 1987 to 1990. I was there when the first Burmese—Myanmarese refugees came over the border after Aung San Suu Kyi won and was imprisoned the first time, and, actually, a colleague of mine, a friend, somebody I knew named Jack Dunford, organized a group of about a dozen faith leaders, church leaders, to go to the border. These are European, American, and, actually, a local Thai church. So we always—I think one of the things I like about the way the faith community responds is we almost always have some type of local component or local relationship there as well.

So Jack led a group to the border, essentially, with private dollars. The faith community began, essentially, the first response to those refugees. UNHCR, of course, and then other multilateral and bilateral groups came in after that. But we were—the faith community was, really, one of the first to respond to that situation.

If we go back—I’m going to go back seventy-five years to World War II. In fact, the faith community was probably one of the largest groups of people supporting refugees as they came out post-World War II. Church World Service itself, we had what we called freedom trains where we would send grain over to Europe in terms of the response feeding post-war—the situation there, and then those trains would, literally, bring back folks—refugees—back into the country and to the communities where that grain came from. So the faith community has, really, been, I think, at the forefront of refugee resettlement since the very beginning.

And one of the things that, for me that’s, really, I think, important to realize is that for us—for example, for Church World Service, we started with seventeen-member denomination. So Church World Service is an organization that has the Mainline—what we would call the Mainline Protestant churches as our founding members. Today, it includes historic Black churches, the Anglican, and Orthodox communities as well.

But in those first few years after World War II, refugee resettlement was very—it wasdifferent than it is today, as Kelly mentioned. Before the Refugee Act of 1980, it was, essentially, a private enterprise and people would—it was faith communities and other private groups that would bring refugees into the country and then resettle them.

And so for Church World Service, in our first ten years we resettled over a hundred thousand refugees in the U.S., so during that 1946 to 1956 time period. I think that’s really, frankly, stunning. I mean, I think, when you think about what was behind this, and I think, at least, I know for Mainline Protestant communities it was the service impulse of these communities, that they wanted to reach out. They wanted to support—it’s considered part of—if you read the Bible and you interpret it in a certain way, the theology of welcoming the stranger, welcoming someone who is not from where you are, is a really big part of some of the stories and some of the scripture passages.

And so our core group—our core constituency—was really motivated to do refugee resettlement. And, frankly, in that—in, I think, that early period it was predominantly faith-based organizations who were doing this work.

I’m just going to speed up a little bit and talk about  the period, I think, from—really, from 1955 through, let’s just say, 1980, especially the ’60s and ’70s. If you take refugee resettlement aside, if you look at some of the other sectors—the international humanitarian sector and development sector—with the advent of the U.N., there’s, actually, increased secularization of, essentially, the work that faith communities had done kind of initially post-World War II.

And I think in fact, many—I always find it interesting because I think in the refugee world it’s very different. The faith communities have been part and parcel of this work for—since the very beginning, and I find, for example, in the public health space where I spent a decade, that you find that people look at the faith communities, and faith organizations, and faith-based approaches sometimes as—with a little bit more suspect, though, not understanding that, in fact, actually, faith communities and faith-based organizations have been doing this work ever since the beginning.

So, as I would say, the work became more secularized, I think, as I look back, and I look at the Refugee Act of 1980 and the involvement of—really, the much bigger involvement of the U.S. government in terms of refugee resettlement, looking at basically aligning to UNHCR’s definitions, creating more controls and systems around who comes in, how people come in. Of course, it’s the presidential determination each year, adding that piece to it; so organizations like Church World Service had to adjust and I would say that’s probably another feature of what we did as an organization, and as I know many of our other colleague organizations have done, how we’ve addressed and resettled refugees has changed over time as well.

Kelly mentioned six of the nine resettlement agencies either being faith based or faith founded. I think all of us have gone through some—different types of evolution of how we’ve addressed refugees and resettlement. And so for Church World Service for a period in the ’80s and early ’90s and maybe even early 2000s, it was really dependent upon our main institutional denomination.

So the larger denominations we had a refugee committee and we would resettle through, essentially, those networks. So there was denominational representatives. They were in contact with their array and networks of local churches, and refugees would be apportioned to whichever church and community could best support them.

I would like to say, also during this time, I think, for me, and one of the things I always find, really, I think, important about Church World Service and our work is we’ve always been—we’ve always tried to do what’s in the best interests of the refugee and the refugee family.

So we went through a period where now—we went through this period where it was really dominated by, essentially, national bodies, and then over time that’s changed. And so, in fact, Church World Service, through our twenty-three affiliates and our nine national offices, that we actually resettle folks through more of a community sponsorship model today and that includes individual churches. That includes also national bodies.

But, frankly, it really looks at the community as a whole. So not just the faith-based part of the community but how can we bring different elements and different players in the community itself to help support refugee and refugee families.

And I think maybe another feature kind of post-1980 that I think it’s really important to say is that Church World Service has always looked at the work, especially post-1980, as a public-private partnership, that we, as the nonprofit community, as, essentially, NGOs, are really the private side and that we bring a lot of value—that the faith communities and our relationship to the whole refugee process has created a lot of value, whether that be through support of individual churches, co-sponsorship with churches. We have many different ways for the community to be involved in the co-sponsorship of refugees and, really, bringing refugees into the community.

And I would say probably another piece of that that’s really important to me is that as a faith-based community it’s not just the looking—specific service issue for us. We, of course, are part of the resettlement grouping and we try to do the best we can and we bring in different, like I said, community sponsorship.

But, really, a part of it for us, too, is also the—essentially, the advocacy side of refugee resettlement. We believe in welcome. We believe in welcoming your neighbor, and we believe that there’s been a lot of misinformation about refugees and what they add to our communities and to our country.

Even though we’ve had these huge waves of refugees coming in post-World War II, post-Vietnam War, of course, Cubans, so we’ve had a different—different waves, this—now, of course, Afghans coming in most recently.

But, really, the idea that we want to—as we build community support for refugees, we also feel it’s really important to build within the mind space of American people that this is a really important thing. It’s important for us as a country. It adds value to us as a country. But it also is, really, part of who we are.

And so the ability to go out and do community organizing around refugee admissions, to be able to do advocacy on Capitol Hill, to do state-level advocacy. I think you saw, coming off the previous administration, a tremendous amount of faith-based actors going into their State Houses and actually having them make really clear pronouncements and give funding support. I know, for example, our affiliate in Portland, the Ecumenical Ministries—their group, SOAR—actually lobbied their—the Oregon House and actually got funding directly from the State of Oregon.

So, really, the ability for us to do advocacy alongside the service is really critical, and the faith community has been doing that for many years and I think that’s one of the, really, truly, added values that we have as a community and we, as Church World Services, have done.

As we look at the current crisis—I think Kelly mentioned the new types of partnerships—I think the reality of what we faced over six months ago when the fall of Kabul—when Afghans were coming in great numbers in a very compressed period of time was the ability to look at the way that we resettle refugees and try to innovate what that might look like.

So for Church World Service, one of our historical strengths has always been working in coalition or working in partnership, and so when we started something called an Institutional Partners Program, we invited groups that we felt really strongly about who could really be helpful to this situation and one of them was Islamic Relief.

I’ve known and been in partnership with Islamic Relief in different ways over the last decade. I know some of the leadership, and when we started talking to them they were really just more than willing to get involved and they were just looking for the opportunity to get involved.

So the Institutional Partnership Program allowed for them to really to begin to be part of the solution. We also have partners like Lions Club, so we have secular partners, and also Samaritan’s Purse, and Samaritan’s Purse has been a really good partner in this program. And I think on a couple of levels, I’ve appreciated, one, their absolute ability to reach out and to resettle people in their communities, but also their ability to really speak forcefully for the need for refugees in this country. So I feel some of the programs that we’ve done recently have, really, actually strengthened the entire refugee resettlement network.

We also started a program—a Community Partner Program. It’s similar to our Community Sponsorship Program. But we really were looking at—because some of the rules changed when Afghans were coming in—the ability to resettle someone within a hundred miles of either a—one of our offices or one of our affiliate offices was loosened, and that we were able to really partner with things like individual congregations, businesses, sports teams, people who were really interested. I got a call from a guy I’ve known for twenty years who was actually a refugee from Vietnam and he’s, like, how do I—how do I help resettle an Afghan refugee?

So, really, the ability to reach out to a larger group of community players was—is, really, I think, frankly, just one of the real benefits of this moment of crisis that we responded to.

So, finally, I’m just going to end. I know we’ve covered a lot of ground, a lot of time—period of time. But I just want to say that, for me, there’s—we, as a faith—we are a Protestant Christian organization but I know our fellow agencies, whatever their religious leaning, we have a consistent—we have a consistency across faith traditions about how we live that faith and how we’re inspired by it, how we—how welcome is a part of these different traditions. And I’m just, really, just grateful that we have such—kind of a similar approach and, really, a similar set of beliefs and that we’re all rowing in the same direction on this issue.

And just, finally, I want to end by saying that  Don Kerwin wrote an article in 2018 where he really outlines just what do refugees mean to this country, and in that article he really goes into depth about  essentially the benefit that refugees have brought us as a country. So not just economic benefit but, I think, cultural benefit, bringing a fresh perspective, keeping us connected to the rest of the world.

Church World Services has resettled refugees from over eighty-six countries. Just the richness that comes from that enriches all of us. And so I’m just really grateful for the work that we do, and our ability to be involved in this, and to be innovative in different ways in refugee resettlement.

So, thank you, Irina.

FASKIANOS: Thank you so much, Rick.

And now we’re going to go to all of you for questions and comments. You can either raise your hand or you can type your questions in the Q&A box and I’ll read it, and we already have questions lining up.

I’m going to, first, go to Simran Jeet Singh, who’s with the Aspen Institute Religion & Society Program.

“We’re seeing so much racist and religious bigotry in the unfolding refugee crisis in Ukraine. There’s a strong and explicit preference for white and Christian refugees. What can we do to ensure equal treatment for refugees of all backgrounds?”

GAUGER: Rick, do you want to start?

SANTOS: Yeah. Maybe I’ll start with that one.

I would say, this is really, clearly, unfortunate and there has, clearly, been a trend. I think one of the most important things  in this—for example, in the most recent situation with Afghanistan that, really, we’ve had such a broad-based support. We’ve had U.S. military. We’ve had, as I mentioned, Samaritan’s Purse, Islamic Relief.

We’ve been able to create a coalition across many different organizations that will—that, basically, say that people who come here are people of worth and value and they can help the United States, and I think part of this is a message in terms of advocacy. We have to continue to reinforce that message and we have to make sure that people see all refugees, all people in need, as equal and of equal worth. Thanks.

GAUGER: I think I would just add that for—in many of the years where we have had a robust refugee resettlement program and, actually, even during the last administration the majority or, at least, the plurality of our refugees have been from Africa.

So I think that the U.S. does a very good job of having an extremely diverse Refugee Admissions Program, even more so in recent years. I mean, in Africa alone, I think, we admit twenty-five nationalities per year. This year, African arrivals are not as high as they have been in recent years, partially because COVID has really impacted even more so our operations in Africa than elsewhere.

But I think that the welcome that African refugees and also the seventy-two thousand Afghans who have arrived in the United States, the welcome that they’ve received in our communities around the country, I think, is really a hallmark that, yes, we are all aware that there is racism in the way that refugees are treated in many locations.

I would argue that it’s a bit different here in the United States. And I’m not trying to be a Pollyanna here, but I think that our communities have done an exceptional job in welcoming refugees of all faiths, and colors, and ethnicities to the United States.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to go—next raised hand from Azza Karam.

KARAM: Thank you very much, indeed, for this opportunity, and a very quick note of appreciation for what Ms. Gauger was speaking about and the work that they’re doing, but a very special note of appreciation for Church World Service.

Rick, I know that you’re one of the institutions that has delivered so much and you have garnered plenty of wonderful attention but, honestly, not half as much as you deserve. So hats off and shout out to the work that you do that, I think, is exemplar to many other faith-based organizations.

I was delighted to hear of the different partnerships that you spoke about, including with Islamic Relief and others. I just wondered at something that—I just want you to give your own read on something that we’re encountering in Religions for Peace when we set up our multi-religious humanitarian fund, how difficult it was—it still is—to get different religious institutions and organizations to commit even a nominal amount to this kind of a(n) effort that is intentionally geared at multi-religious service, multi-religious collaboration, pooling together the resources at the national level not only here in the United States but actually in the developing context where you know that that’s—faith-based organizations can often be the first responders to all of these spaces of refugees and internally-displaced and forced displacement.

Why do you think it still remains so challenging for faith-based organizations to contribute to a multi-faith mechanism that is, ultimately, aimed at actually ensuring that the response is exactly along the lines of what you’ve been describing—that it’s not just one organization but several representing different religious traditions coming together to serve in exactly the same space, exactly the same communities, at exactly the same time?

What do you think their—where do you think their reticence comes from, and what would you suggest to help get over that particular reticence so that we’re actually doing social cohesion as we are delivering our respective services from our respective institutional religious spaces? Thank you.

SANTOS: Yeah. So, thank you, Azza.

So just, really, thank you for all you’ve done. I mean, you—I know, you’ve been a leader in interfaith space and bringing different groups together.

I think it’s a great question. I think a lot of groups, especially historically, have a certain way of working and, I think, maybe it might just be this historical inertia that sometimes it’s hard to overcome.

Church World Service is part of something called the ACT Alliance. We’ve been part of the World Council of Churches for a very long time. And so the ACT Alliance is an ecumenical group that, basically, I would say, sister agencies across Europe belong to—for example, Christian Aid in the UK would be an example, or Bread for the World in Germany.

And so, I think, one of the historical problems is that people have a historical relationship with these other groups and then just trying to open those up and making them a wider forum, I think, is sometimes difficult.

I’ve known Anwar from Islamic Relief for years and, really, I feel one of the reasons why we were able to work well together with Islamic Relief is that we knew each other and we were able to kind of break down some barriers very quickly with that.

And so I think maybe that’s another way, just the ability to maybe bring a table together—a multi-faith table together to have this conversation. I know there are different versions of that out there. But very specifically that we are talking about I don’t know if there’s one, and I would say that Church World Service would be willing to be a part of that if someone was to try to call that together.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to pull together two written questions from Shannon McAlister and Eleanor Ellsworth, respectively, from Fordham and the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego. And just for clarification from you, Rick, notice that the list of collaboratives named for resettling refugees did not include the Catholic Church. Has the Catholic Church been involved in refugee resettlement as well or have you reached out to the Vatican and/or National Catholic Bishops Conferences about collaboration?

And then from Eleanor, if you could also talk about the Orthodox, how they’re engaged with CWS. Does this reflect American Orthodoxy only or are they international—Eastern Orthodox bodies—are they involved?

SANTOS: Great. Yeah. So on the first question, the Catholic(s) have their own resettlement agency and they’re one of the nine. And so we all collaborate, in a sense, together as those nine agencies to do resettlement.

I mean, off the top of my head, I know in terms of the faith based includes LIRS—Lutherans. It includes the Episcopal Migration Services. So they’re definitely including—and also the Catholics as well. World Relief, of course, is more representative of the Evangelical family.

So there are—the Catholics do participate and are very active. I would say—I’m sorry, Irina. The second question that you asked?

FASKIANOS: About the Orthodox.

SANTOS: Yeah. So we have two levels—I would say, two layers of relationship with the Orthodox Church. One is, Orthodox Churches are, of course, a member of Church World Service as well as we partner with the Orthodox Churches globally through this ACT Alliance that I was mentioning.

And then, finally, just individually. I’ve known Dean Triantafilou for twenty-five years. Dean is the CEO of International Orthodox Christian Charities—IOCC—and we don’t specifically work with them on these types of resettlement issues but we actually have been in collaboration over the years in terms of humanitarian response overseas.

FASKIANOS: Great. Thank you.

And, Kelly, I don’t know if you also want to take that on. But I’m going to throw another question to you. You can answer that as well as this one from Hamelmal Kahsay.


FASKIANOS: Go ahead.

GAUGER: Oh. Sorry. I was just going to add, if I could, that for many years the Catholics actually had the largest—they resettled more refugees than any other of our domestic partners for many years. I think the International Rescue Committee has overtaken them recently. But, yes, for sure, the Catholics are a very strong partner on refugee resettlement.

FASKIANOS: Right. And people should just pay attention to the chat where there’s some interesting commentary. Donna Markham—Sister Donna Markham—talks about Catholic Charities is resettling thirteen thousand Afghan refugees this year and they’ve resettled refugees and migrants for a hundred and ten years.

There is a written note from Hamelmal Kahsay from the Ethiopian Development Council specifically about the Tigrayan refugees in Sudan. There are a lot of stats there in the chat about 70 thousand refugees in Sudan, 2 million internally-displaced people, 5.2 million people facing famine. How do we—how would you open the siege that was imposed on the 7 million people of Tigray and save lives? I mean, what policy can happen in terms of resettling as well?

GAUGER: I’m going to say that some of that question is above my pay grade and out of my expertise.

So I’m the deputy director in the Refugee Admissions Office so my mandate is refugee resettlement, and I will just say that, yes, we have been tracking the plight of Tigrayan refugees for some time now.

Sudan is one of those countries in which it has long been extremely difficult to operate. We have tried over the years to launch larger resettlement programs of Ethiopians, of Eritreans. I guess those would be the top two nationalities in Sudan. But it’s just been extremely difficult to operate there.

And I will just say that in terms of resettling refugees out of Ethiopia, so not Ethiopians but other refugees in Ethiopia, has long been one of our larger areas of work in Africa. But we have had to halt most resettlement operations in Ethiopia because of the current conflict.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to go next to Steven Paulikas, who has a raised hand.

PAULIKAS: Hi, there, Rick and Kelly. Thank you so much for your presentations. I’m the rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Brooklyn.

I really appreciate all the work you’re doing. We are in the process of resettling an Afghan refugee family here in New York City, and just at a sort of  ground level perspective, I have to say that the system looks incredibly broken.

Basically, we are working with a faith-based partner who is a refugee resettlement agency. They received the one-time payment of—I think it’s 2,275 dollars per refugee—and then, basically, the onus is on us to take care of everything else and to deal with all of the other—sort of navigating everything from housing discrimination, which is real, against refugees, especially in many different parts of the country but even in New York City, to finding adequate health care providers. Benefits don’t really kick in from the government until after a certain period of time.

And we’ve been—it’s a true blessing to work with them and they’re wonderful. The agency is wonderful. The family is wonderful. But I’m just wondering, just if we zoom out a little bit, do you really think that the system as it is now is tenable to continue this way?

And, Rick, you used the term public-private partnership, which is a great way of describing it. But I’m just sort of wondering if  an issue that is as important, the humanitarian and national security issue, if a public-private—PPP model is really appropriate for it, going forward?

Thank you so much. Really appreciate it.

GAUGER: Thank you, Steven, for that question. I’ll start and then I’ll ask Rick to chime in afterwards.

I’m sorry to hear that your perspective from the ground has been that the system—I think you used the term broken—I’m sorry to hear that that has been your experience. I would, I guess, just urge you to consider that the just incredibly huge number of Afghans who have had to be resettled in such a short period of time, immediately coming upon a very difficult period for the resettlement program, both between the last administration—the policies of the last administration, which were, really, to shrink and diminish the program, and COVID, which has really—as I said, really impacted our ability to operate overseas but also domestically. Although things are getting better domestically COVID wise, it’s still not the case overseas.

And so I guess I would just—while taking your criticism, I’d urge you to consider that this is—this was an extraordinary kind of confluence of events, kind of a perfect storm that, I think, really taxed the domestic refugee resettlement program. We—

FASKIANOS: Kelly, you just muted yourself. There you go.

GAUGER: I’m sorry. My screen keeps going black and then—OK. So it’s just been an unprecedented effort, and I think Rick and I both spoke about some of the new partnerships that we’ve brought online. We recognize that we still have a lot of work to do.

In terms of your last question, I mean, I think I know how Rick will answer but I’ll answer for myself to say I don’t think that these challenges would lead me to say that this program is too important to leave to a public-private partnership.

I would say that that aspect, that public-private partnership, is one of the things that sets the U.S. resettlement program apart from a lot of other programs in the world—a lot of other resettlement countries in the world—and I think it’s been one of our strengths. It comes with challenges and, yes, it comes with less funding than, I think, any of us would like. But I think—I would not say that I would want to jettison the public-private partnership, despite the challenges that we’ve faced.

SANTOS: Yeah. So thanks, Steven.

I mean, I’m sorry that you’ve had that experience. I think we use a community sponsorship model where we try to get as many actors involved in the resettlement process, local actors to help with different parts.

As you’ve realized, resettling a person and a family is actually really hard and it’s complicated, and there are things that we have to make sure we do for them. So it’s in their best interests getting them settled, getting them homed, getting the furniture, health checks, enrollment in school—all these different things that take a lot of time.

And so, I think  the best way to do it is, of course, working, I think, from my perspective, as many community actors as possible to help out with that to lighten the burden. I really think, actually—I would say, for me, and I’m going to echo what Kelly said—I think the advantages of the public-private partnership that we have just are—far outweigh maybe some of the limitations that we have in them. And I think one of the biggest pieces is just getting a larger set of stakeholders who really see that actually resettling a refugee in their community is a good thing.

And so by getting as many touches on it from different community members as possible allows that to expand. We faced in this country—it’s just shocking to me. My mother is an immigrant—not a refugee, but an immigrant—and so I know—I’ve seen how immigrants—a lot of my cousins, and aunts, and uncles were also immigrants, so I saw how they were not always treated with, I would say, the best of intentions.

And so, for me, just making sure that this is really, really such an important part of who we are as a country. We’re not going to achieve that if it’s just solely, I would say, a government program. And so, for me, I would argue very strongly that not only do we need to continue this public-private partnership, but actually try to include more people from the private side. Thanks.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to go next to Alan Bentz-Letts, who also wrote his question. But I think if you could just ask it and identify yourself, that would be great.

(Technical difficulties.)

FASKIANOS: Oh. Alan? There you go.

(Technical difficulties.)

FASKIANOS: OK. (Laughs.) We’re getting some distortion so we don’t understand. So I’ll read it.

Alan Bentz-Letts is from the Riverside Church in New York City and—oh, let’s see. Hold on a minute. I’m looking for the question, which was in the chat, actually, about climate change. Sorry. I have a lot of inputs.

OK. We haven’t talked about climate refugees. The IPCC report just released on Monday warns the climate crisis is accelerating and societies may be collapsing in the future. Questions are what do you anticipate in terms of climate refugees in the future, and what is the government and CWS doing to prepare for these refugees?

GAUGER: I will start and say that this is, obviously, a monumental question for the United States and other resettlement countries. I don’t profess to be someone who has a great deal of knowledge about this topic.

Other than that, I will say the United States this year is the co-chair of a process called the Annual Tripartite Consultations on Resettlement, which is a forum for all of the—so the thirty or so resettlement countries around the world to get together and share best practices or strategies—that sort of thing.

The ATCR has been, largely, virtual for the last couple of years because of COVID. But, normally, it results in one meeting in the hosting country. So we’re hoping to host a meeting here in Denver later this month, COVID permitting, and we have a large meeting that we’re hosting in Geneva with UNHCR in June, and this topic will be on the table for discussion.

I am told that we need to proceed carefully with this discussion because there are many countries in the world who fear that there may be interest in kind of reopening the refugee definition that’s been in place since 1951 to include climate refugees, which could just absolutely overwhelm the system, which is already overwhelmed by the number of refugees in the world facing one of the five protected grounds of persecution.

So, I think, I’ll just say we acknowledge it’s a looming and huge challenge and it’s something that we’re all—all of us are going to have to work together to address.

Rick, I don’t know if you have something you’d like to add to that.

SANTOS: Yeah. There are a few things.

There’s a lot of conversation going on now about this issue, migration and climate change. The Biden administration invited a Blue Ribbon Panel that included RCUSA members. Mark Hetfield from HIAS was on that with me along with others, and we gave a set of recommendation(s) to the administration on how to begin to address these issues.

I don’t have a link with me right now but at Church World Service we’ve done some preliminary research on, basically, adaptability and climate change and migration and what are coping strategies that people are using right now, and, actually, if you go to the website you’ll be able to find that piece of information.

But I think there’s a couple of steps before we, really, talk about the number of climate-affected refugees and possibilities. I think what we found in our initial research is that communities want to stay close to where they are from—that they don’t actually want to move to other countries if they don’t have to—that they want to do—they want actually to be supported with adaptive strategies to be able to stay in place.

And so this includes agriculture, new agricultural techniques or seeds that can deal with climate change or more arid conditions. It includes strategies on WASH. It includes a lot of different strategies. And the final strategy would be either kind of internal migration or a refugee status.

So I think, I know the issue of climate change is really high in people’s minds, and I know that there’s a lot of organizations that are trying to figure out other strategies, including adaptability—how do we become more adaptive, where we are, and how do we do that first.

So I would just suggest that if you look at some of the stuff that’s out there, look at the Blue Ribbon Panel report, the Biden administration actually adopted a lot of what we had put forward, including this idea of disaster risk reduction as kind of a key strategy for climate migration adaptation.

So that’s all I’ll say for now. But I think there’s going to be a lot more work on this and a lot more conversation.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

And Ali Khan with the American Muslim Council asks if there’s an update on resettling Syrian refugees.

GAUGER: Yes. Syrians were a population that we, of course, resettled a fairly good number of toward the end of the Obama administration. Their numbers fell off significantly during the last administration. We do have a good number of Syrian refugees in the resettlement queue, largely, located in Jordan and Turkey.

I will say that what we have found, since many of these cases had very little movement on them for a number of years, a lot of them are very difficult to try and contact, especially those who had been living in Turkey. We assume that many of them have moved to Europe.

So I don’t have any specific figures to give you other than that for cases that were in our pipeline and in the process during the Obama administration, they’re—if they can be contacted they’re still in the queue and they—their cases can be reactivated. But, again, some of them have been very hard to contact. But we are contacting them. I don’t believe that we’re getting new referrals of Syrians from UNHCR. But we are working with an existing caseload. And I’m sorry, I don’t have the figures in front of me.

FASKIANOS: And, just quickly, there’s a question from Tsehaye Teferra from the Ethiopian Development Council, and also had their hand raised, but I want to just get to it. Do you think the influx of Afghan refugees and now Ukrainian refugees will have an impact on African refugees—on the numbers?

GAUGER: On African refugees. Hi, Tsehaye. Good to hear from you.

I don’t believe so because I believe there is room for all three. First of all, I don’t expect, at least in the near term, an influx of Ukrainian refugees, given, again, what we’ve seen in terms of countries in Europe showing them hospitality. Of course, most of the Afghans who have been resettled came in through humanitarian parole so they don’t count against the refugee ceiling at all. I think there’s room for all three.

Of course, one challenge is, as I noted earlier, there is a limited number of USCIS refugee officers who can conduct interviews overseas. And so right now we work on a quarterly basis and we submit kind of a request to USCIS every quarter and we have to—sometimes we’re told we have to pick and choose which are our priorities.

And, for instance, when they came—when USCIS came back to us and said, we can actually probably do a second set of interviews in the second quarter, so coming up soon, we did ask for circuit rides not entirely in Africa but we—I think we kind of increased the African circuit rides the most. And then the number will go down in the third quarter. So it’s kind of a constantly shifting scene.

But I guess my answer to your question is no, I do not. I believe that we will continue to resettle a good number of African refugees and I know that for some in the administration it’s a priority.

FASKIANOS: Great. I just want to give you, Kelly, thirty seconds for closing, and then I’ll go to Rick just to make any last point.

GAUGER: Thank you. So my screen has gone black so I don’t know if you can see me. I can’t see any of you. But so I’ll—

FASKIANOS: We can. We can still see you. (Laughs.)

GAUGER: OK. OK. I’m staring at a black screen right now. I’m glad you can hear me.

I guess I would just say thank you so much for having me. Thank you for the interesting questions. It was nice to speak and hear from a different cast of characters. We often talk to a lot of the same people in Washington about refugee resettlement so it was a pleasure to get some questions from people that I have not encountered before.

Thank you, all of you, for the work that you’re doing to—if you are, to help Afghan and other refugees to resettle and I look forward to more such communications—conversations in the future.


SANTOS: Yeah. Irina, I just want to thank you and the Council on Foreign Relations for inviting me to this conversation, and thanks, Kelly, for, really, just a lot of really good information.

I’m really—I feel, in some ways, very privileged to be sitting in this spot where any of the other six, at least, of the nine, if not all of the nine, other resettlement agencies easily could have been sitting in my space. I’m so grateful for them. We really work as a collaborative group and the work that all of them do is just as important as everything that we do, and so just really appreciative. I just want to give them a shout out for that.

Just finally, just really happy to be able to, really, have a conversation around faith and resettlement. I think sometimes people think of this as a, really, secular approach to things, and I have that in all the other development work that I do. So, really, just grateful for the Council and you for having this session.

FASKIANOS: Fantastic. Thank you. Thank you both. Thank you, Rick Santos. You can follow Rick’s work at @ricksantoscws. And Kelly Gauger for stepping in at, really, the eleventh hour. What is the Twitter handle for the bureau?

GAUGER: Oh, my gosh. I don’t know. (Laughs.)


GAUGER: I’m sorry. I will send—I will send it to you.

FASKIANOS: Great. And we will—I think the office Twitter handle is @stateprm. But we will circulate links and some information to follow up for this conversation.

Thank you both, and thanks to everybody on this call for the work that you’re doing in this space. It really does take a lot of hands to tackle this really enormous problem, and as we can see, it’s going to get even bigger as more crises come—are happening and the climate change that’s barreling down on all of us.

So thank you again. Please follow us on Twitter at @CFR_religion and you can always email us suggestions, feedback, to [email protected]. We look forward to hearing from you and to continuing the conversation.

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