Make creative use of federal and state funding
States receive funding to assist in resettlement efforts. But these resources can arrive with little notice. The community infrastructure might not necessarily be ready for unexpected surges of refugees. States’ ready capacity for handling influxes of people often lags behind the arrival announcements—as one SRC told us, “A lot of dollars in resettlement follow refugees.”
States can tap into a range of resources—if they can locate them. It begins with the ORR, an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services tasked with overseeing a distributed resettlement system. With a small staff and FY23 annual budget of roughly US$1.8 billion,13 the ORR works mainly through partnerships and collaborations, disbursing funds to federal agencies, states, and nonprofits to provide cash assistance, medical, and social services.14
For just-arrived refugees, resettlement programs receive federal funding for immediate services such as airport pickup, housing, training, cultural orientation, and school enrollment.15 But this funding covers only the first three months, a point at which many refugees haven’t yet achieved self-sufficiency. To help with the next few months, the ORR’s Matching Grant program encourages community donations of goods and services.16 The program is a public/private partnership enabling communities to become directly involved in supporting refugees through donations, volunteer support, and mentorship. Grant recipients agree to match ORR direct client assistance funding with cash and in-kind contributions of goods and services from the community at a rate of US$1 for every US$2 in federal funding.17 Some states have bolstered resettlement programs with alternative, diversified funding streams less reliant on federal sources tied to refugee numbers.
For example, Utah’s Refugee Services Office tapped federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funds to help create a robust case management system that serves its refugee population. Many refugees with children are eligible for TANF benefits, and Utah was able to use some of these funds to build a system enabling it to do more analysis and identify more service gaps than is typical in other states. The ORR provides additional funding needed to cover the system’s costs.18
States and local communities may be able to use other federal funding sources to enhance refugee resettlement, including American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 funding, the CDC’s Public Health Emergency Preparedness Program, and a range of grant-making federal agencies, particularly those aimed at funding emergency preparedness efforts. During the resettlement of Afghans as part of 2021’s Operation Allies Welcome, Oregon’s legislature approved US$18 million in resettlement support from the state’s Office of Resilience and Emergency Management.19
The key to making it work: creativity and information-sharing. Knowing the types of strategies that contemporaries across state lines are pursuing can expand horizons for funding sources.
Review models and partnerships as agility becomes more important
It is likely that the State Department will ask states and resettlement agencies to resettle more refugees in the coming months and years, necessitating rapid mobilization of support resources. Given the unpredictable nature of the events that create refugees, states are required to be ready to support an unexpected influx of individuals with as little as a few days’ notice. This means that state agencies need to be agile.20
Across a host of applications, flexible and cross-functional teams have proven essential to allow organizations to quickly adapt to urgent challenges.21 States can look to incorporate these teams in helping people get housing, social services, or urgent health care.
Planning and preparedness for unexpected surges are key, and state and local entities can tap a range of federal resources, including the National Incident Management System22 and the National Response Framework.23
State and local governments have the freedom to experiment with different strategies. But when it comes to administering refugee programs—funding, partnerships, and more— there are three predominant models that states may choose from,24 a decision with real implications for how the state operationalizes its resettlement mission:
- Traditional state-administered program. Most states use a state-administered model, with federal funds disbursed to a single state agency that focuses on integrating refugees into the labor market and communities.
- Public-private partnerships. A few states opt to use public-private partnerships, in which a state agency partners with one of the nine national nonprofit resettlement agencies to administer assistance while maintaining responsibility for policy and administrative supervision.
- Replacement designee model. A handful of states use a replacement designee model, in which a state withdraws from administering all or part of the ORR funded Refugee Resettlement Program and ORR steps in to designate a separate entity other than the state government to provide refugee services within the state.25
Each of these approaches has advantages and disadvantages; there’s no one-size-fits-all model. Whatever a state’s current model, it makes sense for officials to evaluate alternatives, carefully considering which model allows for the most adaptive and successful resettlement.
Working within a traditional agency structure, as most states do, is centralized and comparatively easy for both federal and state entities to understand. Since employees have connections to other state offices, they can often effectively connect refugees to available state benefits and resources. For instance, Utah created the Utah Refugee Services Office in 2008 to coordinate and consolidate services, enabling it to directly access resources that are a part of the state’s Department of Workforce Services, including clinical social workers and the state’s employment system.26
On the other hand, as one SRC claimed, working within the bureaucracy that comes with acting as a state agency can sometimes compromise agility by adding layers of decision-making and slowing action when quick response is essential.
By contrast, the replacement designee model separates the resettlement function and the state bureaucracy. This doesn’t necessarily mean less engagement—though the division can create gaps in service. As one SRC noted, “I’m not in a state structure, so I don’t have quick connections to talk to the TANF office or Medicaid, because I’m not housed in the proximity of those departments.” Another SRC reported difficulties in refugee access to benefits such as foster care and tuition assistance.
The advantage: public-private partnerships and replacement designee structures can be leaner and more flexible—as long as leaders emphasize and facilitate connectivity. For instance, Kentucky refugee staffers actively foster relationships with state agencies, working closely with policymakers and agencies to collaborate on integrated service provision. And the Kentucky Office for Refugees—an ORR-designated department of Catholic Charities of Louisville—can make program changes within a few months, compared to six months or more for some state-run programs, due to a streamlined approval process with fewer layers of oversight and management.27 In FY 2020 and 2021, Kentucky resettled a total of 1,122 refugees, more per capita than any other state.28