Cuban migrants wait outside the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance in Tapachula, Mexico, June 14, 2019. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, more than 70 million people are displaced worldwide. (CNS photo/Jose Cabezas, Reuters)

One remarkable consequence of the Trump administration’s cruel immigration policies was that so many ordinary citizens showed up to mitigate them. Many of us protested against the “Muslim ban” and family separations, or drove parents across the country to reunite them with the children they had been separated from. Still others provided sanctuary for immigrants facing deportation orders despite their long-established, law-abiding lives in the United States. And all of these efforts were built upon the work of long-term activism by human rights groups, advocacy networks and faith-based groups.

President Biden has repealed the Muslim ban, reinstated the DACA program for Dreamers, addressed the terrible consequences of family separation and begun to explore alternatives to Mr. Trump’s harsh regulations on asylum seekers. He has begun the process of reviving the Central American Minors program, which will allow at-risk children to join their parents in the United States without having to make the perilous overland journey on their own. Under President Obama, this program succeeded in reducing the number of minors arriving at the US-Mexico border by giving them a viable alternative. Now, one of the most urgent tasks remaining is re-establishing and expanding our refugee resettlement program.

Humanitarian Corridors is novel in its reliance purely on private funding, raised by a coalition of faith groups, to resettle refugees and vulnerable migrants.

Once considered the global flagship of refugee resettlement, the U.S. program has been gutted over the last four years. The Trump administration admitted pitifully low numbers of refugees—a policy President Biden quickly indicated he would change. Recently, Mr. Biden seemed to hesitate, even suggesting that he might maintain the Trump administration’s low levels. The outcry was immediate and justified, and he was forced back to his initial, more ambitious plan of raising the refugee cap. Still, his hesitation is understandable. Rebuilding the program will take time, as so many resettlement agencies were forced to close their doors. But time is a luxury we do not have, as the world faces the worst displacement crisis since World War II.

So perhaps there is an opportunity to think outside the box as we rebuild. How can we draw upon the remarkable solidarity that ordinary Americans have shown in recent years? How can we create real pathways to safety for people in need? As increasing numbers of desperate people show up at the US-Mexico border, how can we create alternatives that allow people—especially children—to find refuge in the United States in a more orderly and safe way?

Italy has a compelling model worth considering. Called Humanitarian Corridors, it is novel in its reliance purely on private funding, raised by a coalition of faith groups, to resettle refugees and vulnerable migrants.

Humanitarian Corridors came about after hundreds of thousands of displaced people from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq began seeking refuge in Europe. The crisis overwhelmed the European Union’s asylum system and fueled nationalist responses that scapegoated asylum seekers and repelled them with walls and barbed wire. Thousands drowned in the Mediterranean in failed attempts to seek asylum or to be reunited with family. The conventional pathways for refugee resettlement, which relied on national governments to accept and financially support refugees identified by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, ground to a halt; national governments were overwhelmed and had little appetite to accept additional arrivals.

The Community of Sant’Egidio saw the news of terrible drownings in the Mediterranean. Determined to find an alternative, they turned to an option that had been underutilized in Italy, the humanitarian visa.

On April 18, 2013, a boat carrying migrants from Libya capsized just south of Italy’s Lampedusa Island, and over 600 people drowned. Pope Francis traveled to Lampedusa on his first papal visit a few months later and decried the “globalization of indifference,” asking, “Has any one of us wept for these persons who were on the boat?”

The Community of Sant’Egidio, a lay Catholic organization, and the Federation of Evangelical Churches, both based in Rome, saw the news of terrible drownings in the Mediterranean. Determined to find an alternative, they turned to an option that had been underutilized in Italy, the humanitarian visa. The faith groups saw this as a way forward: Why not identify vulnerable families living in Lebanon who had fled the violence from Syria and request humanitarian visas for them? Sant’Egidio could then arrange safe passage to Italy, where the families could then apply for asylum. This was the birth of Humanitarian Corridors, the ecumenical, grassroots movement that helps migrants avoid the perils of human smugglers and inflatable rafts on the Mediterranean.

Together with the Waldensian Church and other religious groups, Sant’Egidio approached the Italian government with a proposal for a pilot project that would welcome 1,000 vulnerable migrants. The faith groups had already begun raising money to cover the costs of the flights, and they pledged to assume full responsibility for providing hospitality for the migrants for at least a year. They would provide places to stay, teach Italian classes, enroll children in school and accompany the sick to medical appointments. Volunteers from Rome to the hills of northern Italy opened their doors to Syrian families. In the words of one of the representatives, faced with a proposal that was “rational, sustainable and would not cost the government a dime,” how could the Italian authorities refuse?

Meanwhile, Sant’Egidio volunteers were visiting refugee camps in Lebanon, building personal connections with refugees and providing them with aid and accompaniment. They met one family in a dismal camp along the Syrian border that was preparing to make the sea crossing.

Faced with a proposal that was “rational, sustainable and would not cost the government a dime,” how could the Italian authorities refuse?

“Don’t do it, it’s dangerous. Wait, we are trying to find a solution,” the Italians pleaded. Placing their trust in them, the family decided to wait.

The Italian government eventually agreed to the pilot project. Since its first year of operation in 2016, some 2,000 families have traveled safely with Humanitarian Corridors to Italy, surpassing the total number of refugees welcomed to Italy through the official U.N. refugee resettlement process. Many of their stories have been recorded by the HumanLines project at the University of Notre Dame.

Pope Francis got on board quickly, too, and achieved a bit of a publicity coup when he visited refugee camps on the island of Lesbos in 2016. On his flight back to Rome, he brought 12 refugees with him, including six children. This “human smuggling” was part of the Humanitarian Corridors project—and was entirely legal. Upon their arrival, they were welcomed and resettled by members of the Community of Sant’Egidio.

Humanitarian Corridors soon expanded, not only to Italy but also to France, Andorra and Belgium. In Belgium, the coalition of sponsors includes the Muslim and Jewish communities as well. One Sant’Egidio member told us that a Belgian official marveled at the success of this voluntary effort in a country where social service is assumed to be the duty of the government: “How very Anglo-Saxon,” he commented.

Bringing the private-sponsorship model to the U.S.

Volunteerism is very American, indeed. So it would make sense for the United States to begin a program like Humanitarian Corridors, or the Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program that has seen great success in Canada. We have done it before. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan launched the Private Sponsorship Initiative, and until the Clinton administration failed to renew it in 1995, the private sector funded the resettlement of an additional 16,000 refugees besides those funded by the government. Today, the private sector can step up again and lay out detailed blueprints to expand pathways to the United States for refugees and displaced persons.

The effort could help us here in the United States, too. Encountering refugees in person can soften harsh opinions about immigration in the abstract. And for many declining Catholic parishes, a common endeavor like sponsoring a refugee family could be a source of new energy. An ecumenical effort like Humanitarian Corridors can also build connections between faith communities. As the program has grown in Europe, it has added Caritas, bishops’ conferences, and other Christian, Jewish and Muslim organizations as sponsors.

What about traditional U.N. resettlement pathways? They deserve our full support, too. However, the migration challenge today has many facets that traditional humanitarian law does not recognize. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees can help only about 1 percent of those in need of resettlement, and it cannot give refugee status to climate refugees or to those fleeing starvation. One advantage to the Humanitarian Corridors program is its ability to be nimble in responding to the most vulnerable refugees and migrants, including those who are sick or pregnant. Recently, it identified a surprisingly vulnerable population: Syrian young men about to turn 18. Why? Because on their birthdays they would become subject to conscription into the Syrian army.

Private sponsorship can also demonstrate to governments what is possible: Humanitarian Corridors have worked well enough that the European Union is now considering devoting serious funding to the effort. What Sant’Egidio and its partners have demonstrated is that we do not need to stand by while migrants drown or die of thirst or languish in camps. We can act, and we can do so in a way that builds new bonds amid the divisions of our world. Sant’Egidio has always focused on serving the poor by becoming friends. Here, that has meant accompanying the refugees and migrants along every step of their journey—even on the plane journey itself.

The program has even created new friendships between children. In Belgium’s Sant’Egidio community, a 6-year-old heard about Humanitarian Corridors and wanted to help. His family had recently taken a vacation cruise on the Mediterranean, and Lucas wondered aloud why they got to take a safe boat while refugee children had to take dangerous boats to get to Europe. With the help of his parents and friends, the boy raised hundreds of euros; he wanted to pay for at least one plane ticket. Soon, a refugee child named Kudus arrived in Italy from Ethiopia and was told that a child in Belgium had helped to raise the money for his ticket. To say thank you, Kudus drew him a picture: a plane carrying him safely to Europe. That picture made its own wondrous journey into Lucas’ hands. If “a little child shall lead them,” this is certainly an example that it is time for Americans to follow.

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