Biden administration launches private sponsorship program to resettle more refugees 

The United States hopes to welcome 125,000 refugees this fiscal year, an ambitious goal that would mark a record-high number of new arrivals in more than three decades. To help do that, the federal government has launched a sweeping new program to increase the capacity of everyday Americans to participate in the resettlement process. 

Welcome Corps, announced in mid-January, allows groups of five individuals to join together and sponsor refugees as they arrive in the United States. The program will be rolled out in two stages: the first – effective immediately – will pair sponsorship groups with refugees already approved for resettlement in the United States; the second – slated to begin this summer – will also allow sponsors to refer potential refugees for resettlement and sponsor their arrival should they be approved. 

Here at Soft Landing Missoula, we have seen firsthand how so many families spend years waiting for the opportunity to build a new life in this country and the toll that can take on them. We believe the refugee resettlement process needs to be streamlined so we can more quickly welcome refugees, and we fully support the rebuilding of traditional resettlement pathways as well as creative solutions such as this one to achieve that goal. 

Sponsors must raise an initial amount of $2,275 per refugee that is designated to support them during their first three months in this country with things like apartment deposits, furniture, transportation costs, and other needed items. They are also the first people to meet refugees when they get off the plane in their new homes, and sponsors are tasked with helping new neighbors connect with essential services such as healthcare and school; secure employment and job skills training; navigate transportation networks and local communities; and adjust to life in an entirely new place. 

While sponsors will receive training from existing refugee services organizations, they should be prepared to be the primary point of contact and support system for new arrivals during their first three months in the United States. This is a serious and significant commitment. At that point, families may become eligible for other federal programs that the sponsors should also be prepared to help them access as they transition to this next phase in the resettlement process. Of course, it is also the hope that new arrivals and sponsor groups build a lasting connection of some kind that extends beyond the 90-day commitment.

Refugees arriving through Welcome Corps will have full refugee status, allowing them a permanent home in the United States with a  five-year path to citizenship. 

As Julieta Valls Noyes, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration,  said during a virtual press conference, sponsors are expected to “serve as guides to the refugees in their new communities, first responders in times of need and role models.”   

Groups of sponsors will be vetted by the U.S. government, required to show a plan for how to meet these requirements and subject to check-ins from government officials or existing local refugee resettlement organizations. 

Why is this important? 

Though there’s a long tradition of the United States welcoming vulnerable people fleeing crises all over the world, landmark legislation formalized the resettlement program and established the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) in 1980. Since then, most refugees have arrived through resettlement guided by local refugee resettlement agencies – like the International Rescue Committee here in Missoula – which receive federal funding to support their work. 

Welcome Corps is not meant to replace this existing path to resettlement, but rather to complement it so that the government can welcome more people at a faster pace. Right now, people wait years to be resettled in the United States. Biden administration officials believe this program will eventually help streamline the admissions process, increase the number of people admitted each year and help resolve the backlog of tens of thousands of people waiting for resettlement. 

“At some level, it’s a math problem,” said John Finer, who works in the Office of the National Security Advisor, during a press conference. 

For the Biden administration to meet its refugee admissions goal of 125,000 people in a single fiscal year, 10,400 people would have to arrive every month. Admissions, Finer said, is a “lagging indicator” behind the number of admissions interviews taking place overseas, and there have already been 20,000 interviews conducted in the first quarter of the current fiscal year. That means, as a country, we should see a significant jump in the number of arrivals in the coming months. 

According to the Biden White House, the Welcome Corps program aims to have 10,000 Americans sign up as sponsors in order to support the arrival of 5,000 people this year – and grow from there. This goal shows that it’s not designed as a replacement for traditional resettlement pathways,  but rather as another option to expand the system’s capacity, and the ability of everyday Americans to welcome. 

Versions of this initiative have proven to work well in the United States. 

Private sponsorship was made available for Afghans fleeing the Taliban in 2021 and Ukrainians escaping the Russian invasion in 2022. Over 123,000 people applied to sponsor Ukrainians, and roughly 30,000 Ukrainians arrived as a result of the Uniting for Ukraine sponsorship pathway. Though the Afghan Sponsor Circle program began after tens of thousands of people had already fled Kabul, hundreds were welcomed here more quickly as a result of the sponsorship opportunity. 

Both programs allowed people experiencing acute crises to seek haven more quickly. However, many arrived with different immigration statuses – such as humanitarian parole – that did not give them a path to permanent lawful status and, eventually, citizenship. Additional programs to welcome Venezuelans, Nicaraguans, Cubans, and Haitians also offer a temporary solution under humanitarian parole, but typically don’t allow individuals to access essential public benefits. This situation leads to questions about a family’s ability to stay in the United States long-term, and it can introduce more hardship for the refugees and sponsors alike.

Those who arrive through the Welcome Corps private sponsorship will not have to grapple with such uncertainty, as they will arrive with refugee status and a path to citizenship after five years. Welcome Corps does not retroactively grant individuals who arrived under other private sponsorship programs with humanitarian parole status the same option.

What does this mean for Missoula? 

When the Uniting for Ukraine program went live, about 100 people across Montana applied to be sponsors. We don’t yet know how many Montanans will take advantage of this new opportunity to sponsor refugees from all over the world – but we here at Soft Landing Missoula will continue to provide long term support and opportunities for connection and community-building for refugees and immigrants through our existing programming.  

Missoula’s resettlement agency, the International Rescue Committee (IRC), will also continue to receive refugee arrivals this year – up to 250 individuals, which would mark its busiest year –  through the traditional resettlement pathway. But the IRC will not be primarily responsible for those refugees who arrive through Welcome Corps. 

While Soft Landing will eagerly welcome new arrivals through Welcome Corps to participate in our regular programming – opportunities like our youth program, adult support for things like driver’s education and mentorship, Community Center drop-in support and special events – we do not provide access to core services such as employment, healthcare, and housing; financial assistance; or help with immigration paperwork, etc. 

What if I’m interested in becoming a sponsor?  

  1. If you are interested in becoming a sponsor, start by visiting the Welcome Corps website. Consider taking this comprehensive training course designed to guide you through everything expected of a sponsor circle. At least one person of each group will be required to take this course before applying. 
  1. If you want to move forward, you will need to form a group of at least five adults prepared to commit a minimum of at least $2,275 per refugee. 
  1. Complete a background check. 
  1. Work together with your group using the resources provided through Welcome Corps training and information sessions to form your Welcome Plan. This will be required as part of your application, and it includes your step-by-step plan for how to successfully welcome new arrivals, connect them with essential needs like housing, healthcare and employment and help them integrate fully into the Missoula community. It’s also your chance to become familiar with essential resources and systems of support in Missoula- including areas in which Soft Landing Missoula does and does not work.
  1. Complete your application as a group. 

What if full private sponsorship isn’t for me, but I still want to help?

While private sponsorship can be a wonderful way to welcome, it requires significant commitment. The sponsorship team must be able to devote time, financial assistance and other resources to ensure the refugees they sponsor are adequately supported upon their arrival and transition to the United States. 

It won’t be a viable option for many people. But there are other ways to get involved with efforts to welcome refugees and immigrants in Missoula! Up to 250 new neighbors will arrive through the traditional resettlement process, and there are always families who have been here for months or years and continue to need support. Follow the International Rescue Committee and our work at Soft Landing Missoula to see how you can help – there are always opportunities for volunteers, in-kind donations and financial assistance.

A program that helps Montanans afford childcare is changing in the new year. What does that mean for refugee families?

You might be hearing rumblings about changes to a state program that makes childcare more affordable for families earning low incomes. Montana’s Health Department is poised to end pandemic-era financial support to a scholarship program that has helped thousands of families afford childcare during the pandemic, including many of those we work with at Soft Landing Missoula. 

We wanted to provide you with a little more information on what you might be hearing as we continue to educate ourselves on how this will impact refugee families as well as the community more broadly. 

What is the Best Beginnings Scholarship Program?

Best Beginnings existed before the COVID-19 pandemic as a program to offset the cost of childcare for families who earn low incomes. Households with income at or below 150% of the Federal Poverty Line with children attending a licensed childcare center may be eligible to receive the Best Beginnings scholarship. For context: In 2022, the federal poverty line for a family of four is a household annual income of $27,750. 

Before COVID-19, Best Beginnings allowed families to make a monthly copayment on a sliding scale, determined by how much they make each year and family size. Families at the poverty line, for example, would pay less than a family at 150% of the poverty line. The state would reimburse the childcare facility for the remainder of the fee not covered by that copay; however the state’s rate would often be slightly less than the care provider’s going rate to full-paying customers. Therefore, childcare providers were not required to accept the Best Beginnings Scholarship, in part because they were technically making slightly less than they could otherwise. 

In 2021, as many families continued to struggle financially, Montana’s Department of Health and Human Services used pandemic federal aid money to provide additional support. It subsidized the monthly co-pay significantly, so that every family eligible for the Best Beginnings Scholarship would pay only $10 per month per child. Additionally, it made more families qualify for the scholarship by bumping up the income threshold to 185% of the Federal Poverty Line. In turn, this lent childcare providers more stability when working with Best Beginnings families, and it incentivized them to accept the scholarship. 

About 6,620 kids benefitted from the Best Beginnings Scholarship in 2022. 

What’s changing? 

Montana’s health department recently announced it would be ending this level of financial support starting in the new year. According to reporting from the Helena Independent Record, a department spokesperson said all the federal COVID-19 relief money has been spent so the state can no longer fund this deeply discounted co-pay. The state used more than $11 million in pandemic aid to fund the program so that more families could pay only $10 each month. 

Eligibility for Best Beginnings will once again be capped at families earning household incomes up to 150% of the Federal Poverty Line – down from the pandemic threshold of 185% – which means some people will lose the scholarship altogether. The state will also reinstitute the sliding scale policy, so families will no longer pay a flat copay of $10, and some might see their costs jump hundreds of dollars. 

Multiple childcare providers we are in touch with here in Missoula told us that many families have only recently received notice that their monthly copayments will soon skyrocket. Some haven’t received any notice yet. For refugee parents, understanding the bureaucratic and technical letters sent by mail in English – often their second, third or even fourth language – can be very difficult. 

Another significant change impacts attendance requirements. 

Prior to the pandemic, the state would not reimburse providers for the days a child on the Best Beginnings Scholarship didn’t attend care. Providers bill the state’s health department at the end of every month, which meant that sometimes how much reimbursement a facility would get from the state for Best Beginnings couldn’t necessarily be planned ahead of time since it depended on attendance. By comparison, most non-scholarship families pay an up-front cost at the start of every month regardless of attendance, which means childcare providers can count on those dollars for budgeting purposes. 

As part of the COVID-19 relief, the state agreed to pay providers no matter how many days a child attended, giving childcare facilities peace of mind around how much money they would be bringing in when enrolling families using the Best Beginnings program – the same way they would families paying full price on their own. 

With the changes in January, the state will only pay providers in full if a child attends at least 85% of their authorized time, usually 22 days per month. That means if a child misses more than four days, a scholarship family would have to pay the provider. Absences for illness, such as a potential COVID-19 case, are not excused. 

This modification will impact providers –  possibly making them less incentivized to accept Best Beginnings families in the name of stability – as well as families who might find themselves on the hook for more than their already-increased monthly copay if their child can’t attend the childcare facility for the minimum number of days for whatever reason.  

What does this mean for the community?  

Changes to Best Beginnings will impact many of the refugee and immigrant families that we work with at Soft Landing Missoula. Some have arrived in Montana since the changes went into effect last year, and others have had kids enter the childcare system during that time. That means that many have never had to pay costs higher than $10 each month, and this could throw a significant wrench into their finances. 

The same could be said for all community members who rely on the Best Beginnings Scholarship to be able to afford childcare. On average, childcare for two children in Montana can use up to 25% of a family’s annual income. For context, the federal health department has said the standard for affordability should be 7% of annual household income. 

What’s particularly concerning for families is the late notice of these changes, which fails to give many families the chance to figure out how they will cope with higher costs as well as denies childcare providers the opportunity to adjust their own financial planning accordingly. 

Facilities in Missoula such as Little Twigs and Amber’s Angels employ refugee women as child care providers. Those same women benefit from the Best Beginnings Scholarship in order to afford to have their own children at the facilities. 

Providers have expressed fear that the higher cost of childcare could make it financially untenable for women to continue working as the high rate could be more than they make at their jobs. Broadly speaking, that has led to concern community-wide that this change could also lead to an exodus of women from the labor market, including refugee and immigrant women. 

What can you do? 

At this point, it appears the state health department will move forward with enacting these changes in January. However, the State Legislature – which begins its next session on January 2nd – will be debating a budget that will impact a host of state services and support, including the cost of childcare.  
If you’re hoping to learn more about child care affordability, we encourage you to follow what’s happening in Helena with these budget negotiations and reach out to your local state lawmakers, should you feel compelled to do so.

Community Spotlight: International Rescue Committee

Our work at Soft Landing Missoula strives to create a long welcome for refugees, a task only made possible by collaboration with community partners, chief among them the International Rescue Committee in Missoula (IRC). We want to create space to highlight the essential work of this organization to support refugee resettlement and make Missoula a place where new neighbors can thrive – a mission we share and hold deeply together. 

The IRC is one of the country’s nine recognized resettlement agencies, organizations sanctioned by the federal government to oversee the arrival of refugees to the United States. For a city to be a resettlement site, there must be an office of a resettlement agency present – and the IRC is that for Missoula. The IRC office in Missoula was re-established in 2016 (they also held an office in Missoula from 1979-1981) as the result of lobbying and grassroots efforts on the part of community members, some of whom founded Soft Landing Missoula around the same time. 

As Missoula’s only resettlement agency, every refugee who is resettled in Missoula through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP)  – having waited months, but more likely years to be resettled in the United States – goes through the IRC. A couple weeks before arrival, the IRC is provided information about the family – how many people they are, their home country, their ages, their travel routes, etc. 

“That’s when we start our work,” said Eamon Fahey, the Deputy Director of IRC Missoula. “Then, one of the most exciting parts of our work is the arrival.” 

Resettlement runs through the federal government, so the IRC receives funding to support the first few months — typically 90 days – of a new family’s arrival and adjustment. That begins from the first moment the family touches down at the airport, when IRC teams introduce themselves, take them to their housing which has been secured by the IRC and provide them with a culturally appropriate meal, often cooked by community members or fellow refugees who endured a similar process before them.  

Each family is assigned a dedicated case worker from the IRC for those first 90 days. The case worker supports new neighbors as they settle into their new home; get to know Missoula and its bus system; and navigate access to essential needs such as school registration, free English Language classes, and  groceries. 

Along with their case workers, new families also work closely with the Health and Employment teams at the IRC, both of which are growing quickly to keep pace with the growing size of the refugee community here in Missoula. The IRC Health Team connects people with dental care, vaccination information and resources for health insurance enrollment as well as mental healthcare for those who might be interested. The Employment team works closely with jobs sites in the area to match refugees with employment opportunities and hosts job readiness trainings. 

Interpreters – many of whom are refugees themselves – are present at core services introductions to ensure families can understand what’s happening as they sign paperwork, go through cultural orientation and learn all about their new home. This time can be very busy and overwhelming, but the IRC walks newcomers through with a compassionate and experienced hand. 

Case workers also connect new arrivals with other community organizations who provide support – including us at Soft Landing! Whenever a new family arrives, the IRC brings parents and kids to our office so we can introduce ourselves, walk them through our programming and offer them the chance to check out our donation closet. 

Much of the IRC’s work is focused on that initial 90 days, but as Eamon explains, “those funds don’t go very far anymore” on a per capita basis. As such, the IRC also relies on donations, grants and other funding streams in order to comprehensively support new families during those periods. 

Growing Capacity 

When the IRC office in Missoula first opened, its mandate and funding was limited to that fairly narrow scope of 90 days – maybe a little longer depending on the needs of the family – but as the refugee community has swelled in size and complexity, so too has the mission of the organization. 

Eamon was the fourth employee hired in March 2021. Today, the IRC has a staff of 25 to 30 people. 

This recent growth has coincided with a deliberate shift in policy on the part of the United States Federal Government as it pertains to resettlement. The previous presidential administration hollowed out the State Department and refugee resettlement program. Since his election in 2020, President Joe Biden has committed to growing the number of people who will be welcomed in the United States as refugees, requiring the infrastructure around those programs to increase commensurately as well in the hopes that it can once again be a global leader in welcoming the world’s most vulnerable. 

“We continue to grow, and we see huge increases in the folks we serve too. We had a record number of arrivals last year, and this year we are expected to have even more,” Eamon said. “We’re both growing our capacity but we’re also growing our services.” 

Today, the IRC receives additional grants from the federal government that make support beyond that initial 90-day period possible as well as even longer term opportunities to help with professional skills and career development; health and mental healthcare access; and intensive case management to households likely to benefit greatly from more specialized, intensive care. Additionally, the IRC staff includes an immigration specialist who provides community members support in navigating their immigration statuses and the myriad of paperwork that comes with it. 

Mia Lehman works in intensive case management at the IRC in Missoula. She started as a case worker during that initial 90-day placement period, but now focuses on the individuals who need the most support achieving goals to help them feel independent or breaking down certain barriers, such as people with acute mental health challenges, those who have survived trafficking or domestic violence, single heads of households, and more.  

Much of her work focuses on helping people build relationships with partners, services providers or other community members. “All the pieces are already on the table, and I just help the client put them together a little more,” she said, adding that she always reiterates to herself and others that “part of dignity as a human being is feeling empowered to do things on your own, so the work that we do supports people, but people already have everything they need in themselves to succeed.” 

Sometimes it takes new arrivals a while to realize that they might need a little extra help figuring out how to navigate difficult situations, or to develop the courage to ask for help – or even determine where it is they want help. What’s great about the Intensive Case Management Program is that any refugee who has been in the U.S. for five years or less is eligible to be considered for Intensive Case Management services, which gives the IRC the chance to really expand the help it can provide over the long haul.

“What is coming to light now is how many people have gone through the resettlement process and still need the additional support – those numbers are kind of endless,” Mia said of the challenges inevitably caused by such huge transitions in a person’s life. “So we are hoping to provide it to a lot more people and beef up the support we can provide after those first 90 days.”   

Housing 

As it has grown, the IRC has also dedicated much of its energy and resources towards housing. The organization is contractually obligated to secure safe, sanitary and affordable housing to refugees when they first arrive through resettlement. It must be large enough to house a family with two people max per room, and it must have some sort of lease associated with it, six months being the minimum. While the IRC is able to provide rent payments for up to 240 days from arrival, ultimately families must sign a lease on their own and be able to make monthly payments. All this is part of the resettlement program’s emphasis on self-sufficiency.

Additionally, the housing team sets up the home with furniture before a family’s arrival, stocks the kitchen with groceries, and helps new arrivals learn appliances, utilities and safety protocols. 

However, the task of finding safe and affordable housing can be a difficult one in a market like Missoula. 

Nyota Haley, the Housing and Logistics Coordinator at IRC Missoula, says the “biggest barrier” she faces in her work is the “very stringent criteria of most property management companies and landlords.” Those requirements can be particularly brazen in a housing market where there are plenty of people who want to rent, and not that many units to offer them. 

A typical tenant might need to offer references, proof of adequate funds to pay for multiple months of rent or a robust credit history. When refugees arrive in the United States, they almost never have such things. 

Nyota said she’s been able to develop positive relationships with a couple property management companies in town plus some landlords who “have been a lifeline for us” and are willing to advocate for new neighbors and recognize the importance of being more flexible on some of these fronts in order to provide essential housing. 

There are certain times when finding permanent housing is even more difficult, and it can’t be secured within that first 90-day period. Nyota said the housing market was so stretched for much of the last year that many of the Afghans who arrived after the fall of Kabul in August 2021 had to stay in temporary hotel rooms or short-term rentals for weeks before the IRC could secure a more permanent option. 

“I think if we can open those doors with more of our community then, yes, we do have the capacity to grow quite a bit,” Nyota said. “But in its current state, relying on a few companies is certainly not enough, and it already feels like we are at a bit of a pinch point […] but our community at-large does have capacity.”

‘It truly takes a village’ 

As you can see, the IRC does an incredible amount of work for the refugee community – and, by extension, for the whole of Missoula more broadly. And what we do at Soft Landing is made all the better by the IRC. We partner on events such as monthly  Women’s Swim Nights and an annual World Refugee Day Celebration, and we are in constant communication about how to best support new neighbors. 

Eamon put it beautifully: “It truly takes a village to do this work. It’s absolutely essential that as we do this work we stand shoulder to shoulder with partners,” he says. “It falls on all of us to be welcoming and open our hearts to these new Missoulians.”

Community Garden Plots Create a Bridge to Home 

She heads to her garden most days during the summer. Wearing a flowy dress that falls to the ground and sandals, she kicks her shoes off, opting instead for the feeling of dirt on her bare feet. Around her are rows of growing corn, potatoes, onions, and hearty greens, and in the distance lie majestic vistas of the surrounding foothills. 

This scene was commonplace this past summer at community garden plots around Missoula. Thanks to the generosity of Garden City Harvest and Tower Gardens Community Garden at FARM, 11 refugees – mostly Congolese and Afghan community members plus one family from Myanmar – were able to farm their own land, planting ingredients common in their home country’s cooking and giving them a taste of home. 

Here at Soft Landing Missoula, we believe food is one of the most powerful tools for connection, and that’s especially true for refugees coming from countries where subsistence farming wasn’t a hobby but rather a way of life. We have found that facilitating the opportunity for these families to grow their own food and prepare culturally appropriate meals gives many of them a sense of purpose, and it creates such joy. 

For many Congolese farmers, this was not their first growing season. As the years have gone by, we’ve seen them get creative with the types of ingredients they’ll use and learn how to adjust their farming practices to match Missoula’s unique growing season – May to October, relatively short by comparison – and climate. 

They loved growing corn, potatoes, leeks, onions, tomatoes, beans and something called lenga lenga, or pigweed as it’s known in English. Some of them have kept seeds from previous years. 

An assortment of crops from the Garden City Harvest CSA that were dropped off at Little Twigs / Greta Bates

This was the first growing season for Afghan farmers, as just about all of them have arrived since August 2021, and they told us they found a climate very similar to their home country here in Missoula. They were especially excited about onions, carrots, corn, cabbage and beans. 

Greta Bates, a Soft Landing Missoula employee who oversees the summer food program, said the farmers would go every day because they have to water given Missoula’s dry conditions. “It’s amazing how they commit to it. There are mothers spending so much time on these plots despite working full-time, feeding the family, raising kids,” she said. “They do love it.” 

None of this would have been possible without generous donations from community partners. 

Garden City Harvest, a nonprofit in Missoula that does great work in the food sovereignty space, among other things, offers an income-based scholarship program to all residents. We supported clients in that application process and allocated funding for some of the cost, but Garden City Harvest provided meaningful scholarships to many refugee farmers so they could access the plots. The Community Food and Agriculture Coalition, which works to expand local farming opportunities, paid for the community garden plots at Tower Roads. Seedlings 4 Solidarity, an anti-hunger mutual aid organization, provided seed starters which can be extraordinarily expensive, but are required for many crops in Missoula with our short growing season. 

Soft Landing Missoula’s food program also included a weekly CSA pickup – a huge benefit to refugee and immigrant community members who rely on fresh produce but often struggle to access it. 

This was our third year working in partnership with Garden City Harvest, this time with the team over at their River Road Farm (shout-out to Greg Price who oversaw the growing and donations at the farm!). 

Every Friday for 18 weeks between June and October, a Soft Landing staff member would pick up produce from the River Road CSA booth – an assortment of leftover items that had not been collected by CSA members as well as specific items that Greg had grown more of because he knows they’re popular among refugee community members – and drop it off at a couple locations where women could do their own shopping, so to speak. 

The biggest pickup would be at Little Twigs, a local childcare facility that serves 50 children between the ages of 0 and 6-years-old and is staffed almost entirely by refugee women who are able to work on professional development, leadership training and English language skills. This summer, Little Twigs employed 15 refugee women as childcare providers. 

Many of these women would avail themselves of the weekly CSA produce. 

Onions always went, especially among the Afghan women, as did cucumbers. Basil was surprisingly popular – the Afghan women use it to make potpourri while Congolese women use it medicinally. 

At first, kale wasn’t a huge hit, but some of the Congolese started to use it for stews. And while green beans were coveted by all, kohlrabi and garlic scapes took a little bit of coaching on how to incorporate into traditional dishes from the Congo or Afghanistan. 

Garden City Harvest donated over 2,000 pounds of produce this summer. Every week included a beautiful mix like this one! / Greta Bates

Garden City Harvest provided over 2,000 pounds of produce this summer – a staggering number that included a huge diversity of vegetables, herbs and other items. We owe them a HUGE thank you! 

Soft Landing’s summer food program creates tremendous joy, but we believe it’s also essential to the emotional and mental health and wellness of refugee and immigrant community members we serve. 

Research overwhelmingly that reliable access to culturally appropriate food promotes mental health and physical wellbeing. One 2021 study from the journal Food Security concluded that “Inadequate access to cultural foods can create cultural stress and affect one’s identity and well-being.” Another study, published in 2020, found that sharing food culture helps people make sense of and maintain their own self identity in multicultural communities, supporting mental health in the process. 

Additionally, we all know that a diet rich in nutrients and fresh food is important; however, the cost of food has skyrocketed in this macroeconomic environment. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the cost of food between April 2021 and April 2022 rose by 10.8%, the largest increase since the same time period ending November 1980. 

As an organization that strives to create an environment where refugees and immigrants can integrate and thrive in Missoula, we believe our food program helps meet an essential need – feeding a family. It also feeds another kind of need – the desire of many refugee and immigrant community members to feel connected to their home countries and their cultural traditions so that they can be the truest and fullest versions of themselves in their new home here in Missoula.

This is a story of Gathering….

“Life in America can be difficult, especially for those of us who are used to being surrounded by people,”

– a friend from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who shared this with me recently

As we listen to friends from the Congo, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq, and Syria, we continue to learn how we can create a better—and long-lasting—welcome. 

We often hear from the people who come through the doors of our Community Center that one of the things they miss most about home is gathering with friends and family. 

The experiences that force families to leave their relatives and homes coupled with the loneliness that can come with building life in a new place makes community and connection essential parts of new neighbors’ transitions.

For many, gathering is a large part of mental health and wellbeing. New neighbors thrive when they have many opportunities to gather and build community throughout the year.

Your contribution to Soft Landing Missoula gives those who arrive here as refugees and immigrants opportunities to gather, grow, and thrive. 

With the generous help of our supportive community, Soft Landing is able to offer many ways to gather and build community all year long.

Our Community Center is a gathering place and hub of connection. It’s where new neighbors come for support and resources, to visit over a cup of tea, or to celebrate life’s major milestones.

The Youth Program brings together young people for after school tutoring as well as a variety of social and recreational activities where they can build friendships.

United We Eat hosts Welcome Dinners to provide the space for refugee and immigrant families to gather during cultural holidays, and to celebrate with volunteers, community partners, and newcomers over a shared meal reminiscent of home.

Gatherings on World Refugee Day and throughout the summer bring together new neighbors from different cultures highlighting the power of music, dance, food, and soccer as tools to provide connection and inspire joy.

As the community of refugees and immigrants in Missoula continues to grow, everyone has a role to play in creating a place where newcomers enjoy a soft landing, a long welcome, and opportunities to gather, grow, and thrive.

During this season of gathering, I hope you’ll show your support of refugee and immigrant families here in our community with a year-end gift. Your donation helps create these many beautiful opportunities—big and small—for new neighbors to gather and build community.

In love and gratitude,

Mary Poole, 
ED Soft Landing Missoula

world map

President Joe Biden Sets Goal of Welcoming 125,000 Refugees

Explaining Presidential Determination: A Key Component of Refugee Resettlement 

The United States could welcome up to 125,000 resettled refugees over the next twelve months, an ambitious goal to provide a soft landing to some of the world’s most vulnerable people in this country.

Ahead of every fiscal year – which for the federal government runs from October 1 to the following September 30 – the President consults with Congress to set the maximum number of refugees the country can accept during that period. This process also includes specific allocations for how many people can arrive to the United States from particular regions of the world. 

It’s called the Presidential Determination, and it’s important not just as a guidepost for the year but also as a way for local resettlement agencies like the International Rescue Committee Missoula (IRC) and organizations such as our own to plan their budgets, priorities, and programs. 

When President Joe Biden took office, he committed to rebuilding and resourcing the resettlement program which had been gutted by the prior administration under Donald Trump. The former president used resettlement – and immigration more broadly – as a political cudgel, reducing funding for the system and eliminating jobs both in this country and abroad essential to the process. 

In an effort to rebuild the system, President Biden announced for his first full year in office the highest resettlement target in decades – 125,000 people – and he maintained that same goal for the current fiscal year that just began. 

Origin of Presidential Determination 

When President Jimmy Carter signed the United States Refugee Act in 1980, landmark legislation that codified a refugee resettlement program, he did so wanting to double the number of people welcomed from ravaged war zones in Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia every month. 

The hallmark bill – which enjoyed widespread bipartisan support at its signing –  gives the authority to the President to determine the maximum number of refugees to arrive in the United States every fiscal year, and it’s meant to allow flexibility to respond to ever-changing global conflict and displacement. 

It also requires the President to submit a report to Congress detailing the current status of global displacement and the United States’ foreign policy as it pertains to resettlement; an explanation for the year’s target number; and an analysis of possible impacts on local communities and economies. 

Since President Carter signed this bill into law, nearly 3.5 million people have gone through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) created by the legislation, according to State Department data, making it the largest refugee resettlement program in the world. 

During that time, the quota set by the Presidential Determination has fluctuated greatly, from 231,700 in 1980 as the United States sought to resettle the many people fleeing the wake of the Vietnam War to a historically low 18,000 in 2020 during the final year of President Donald Trump’s administration. 

world map
Photo by Jack Stapleton on Unsplash

The Reality  of Presidential Determination 

While it’s important to recognize this effort on the part of the United States to resettle refugees, it’s equally critical to acknowledge that we, as a country, have fallen far short of our refugee resettlement goals year-after-year with rare exceptions. 

After the September 11 terror attacks, the Presidential Determination was set at 70,000 for the following six years. During that time, the process became so bogged down by bureaucracy and stringent vetting informed that only a fraction of that target was reached. And although President Biden set the goal of 125,000 people last fiscal year, fewer than 20,000 individuals actually arrived in the United States through the resettlement process – a count separate from the Afghans who arrived through humanitarian parole.

At Soft Landing Missoula, we are privileged to have welcomed the Afghans who have fled their homes since Kabul fell in August 2021, and we think it’s critical that our doors remain open to those who remain in Afghanistan as well as those who must urgently flee other conflicts such as the war in Ukraine. 

However, it’s equally important that we acknowledge how these new pathways to arrival in the United States have slowed down the process for people who have been waiting years to be resettled here, often in refugee camps or other precarious living situations. Although the current presidential administration aspires to rebuild the resettlement system so it can process refugees and asylum seekers more quickly, it simply doesn’t have the capacity to meet the current demand – and additional programs, critical as they might be, set aside for Afghans and Ukrainians have slowed it down even more. 

All this as the world faces a severe displacement crisis. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 100 million people are currently living against their will outside of their homes, the highest number in history. 

“The cases of hundreds of thousands of refugees from many other countries around the world have been languishing for years,” said Sunil Varghese, Policy Director at the International Refugee Assistance Project, in a statement. “The refugee admissions target should be followed by concrete actions to improve the refugee resettlement process and actually resettle more refugees.” 

What Presidential Determination Means for Missoula 

Once the United States sets the maximum total number of refugees who could be welcomed here as new neighbors, it then determines how many people will be resettled to which cities. This is an important step in the process so that local resettlement agencies and services providers can prepare. 

Here in Missoula, our local resettlement agency, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) could see as many as 250 people come as new arrivals to our beautiful corner of Western Montana. We don’t yet know where people will be coming from, or when they will arrive, and that information is often not learned until a few weeks before a family flies into Missoula.

If the country fails to meet its resettlement goals, cities nationwide – including Missoula – are directly impacted, unable to welcome as many refugees as they would otherwise be able to as a result. 

Last fiscal year, Missoula was approved to welcome 250 people, and the IRC was prepared to shepherd that process. However, closer to 150 new neighbors were ultimately resettled here. Of that, about 100 Afghans arrived through a distinct pathway called Afghan Humanitarian Parole (APA), just about 50 individuals were directed to Missoula as refugees through the traditional resettlement process. 

While we anticipate the majority of people who will arrive this coming year via resettlement will be from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Syria as well as possibly from other communities from countries we already work with such as Eritrea, Iraq, and Afghanistan, we also know that things can change quickly. For example, there is a new path to private sponsorship for those fleeing the war in Ukraine – called Uniting for Ukraine – and Ukrainian families have already started to arrive in Missoula.

There remain many unknowns about how and if this new model of private sponsorship could be used by the federal government in the future to support other groups fleeing conflict and to supplement traditional resettlement. Recognizing the continued complexity of global displacement, we are eager to continue the important work of welcoming any and all new neighbors here at Soft Landing, working closely with our partners at the IRC and the Missoula community more broadly.  

It’s that time again! Camp Paxson 2022.

Summer is on its last legs. Nights are becoming cooler. Days are a little shorter. And the first day of classes in Missoula County Public Schools is rapidly approaching.

Every year, this changing of seasons is bittersweet for us at Soft Landing Missoula. On one hand, it means the return of after-school tutoring and the chance to see more families regularly walk through the doors at the Community Center. On the other hand, it means the conclusion of our long lineup of summer activities for the youth program (rafting, hiking, trail runs!) and a farewell to many volunteers, interns and AmeriCorp members who do so much great work during the season.

But what we all love about summer’s end is our annual youth trip to Camp Paxson near Seeley Lake!

This year, around two dozen middle- and high-schoolers made the trip to one of Western Montana’s most historic sites. Camp Paxson sits on a 15-acre peninsula that was cared for by the Salish, Blackfeet and Crow tribes for hundreds of years prior to European colonization. Though the land and its stewards far predate the construction of the present day buildings, the cabins and other structures were built during the Great Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Camp Paxson began as a camp for the Boy Scouts of America, and a couple years later, it became a school for smokejumpers for the United States Forest Service.

Today, it’s leased by a nonprofit to all kinds of organizations and groups to host gatherings, and here at Soft Landing Missoula, we are lucky enough to use the space for three days and two nights as our bookend to summer every year!

The highlight of the weekend was certainly all the swimming. Kids spent hours splashing, jumping off the dock and canoeing! Those who didn’t swim – or at least not as much – enjoyed sand volleyball and games of soccer, and we had an afternoon of crafts including tie-dye and beading.

Though kids spent most of the day doing a variety of activities, everyone came together over meals. We cozied up to the long, wooden tables in the dining hall and shared traditional dishes from some of the cultures represented by campers such as Congolese plantains for breakfast and Syrian lentils and rice for dinner. We had almost as much fun cooking this food as we did eating it! The kitchen turned into a bonafide dance party.

It wouldn’t be summer without a proverbial gathering around the campfire. And while fire restrictions meant we had to forego the actual flames, we did conclude the weekend all together for a talent show. Kids choreographed dances and shared music from their home countries, and we passed along traditional campfire snacks with a twist: a cake celebrating Soft Landing’s three summer Americorp members who made this summer so special – Rachel, Matthew and Lydia!

As the sun set on our final night at Camp Paxson and on the summer overall, we paused for a moment of gratitude – for the amazing kids and their families we get to learn from every day; for the special moments shared in beautiful places; and for all the people in this community who help to make it feel like home for all of us.

Girls Empowerment Trip to Lake Inez 2022

Summer has been a whirlwind for the youth program at Soft Landing Missoula.

Most recently, we wrapped up our annual overnight trip for girls, a chance for young women in the youth program to feel comfortable and empowered in a space of their own.

Eight girls spent three days and two nights at Lake Inez just north of Missoula. The trip had all the makings of a typical and awesome summer outing in Montana: a hike to Holland Falls, river dips and time spent on the lake. But it was so much more than that.

Girls enjoyed a lot of time and opportunity to share with one another — their culture, their languages, their foods and their experiences in Missoula. Though many of them are frequent participants at youth events, they didn’t know one another all that well since it’s not uncommon for teenagers to stick with the people they already consider friends at the regular programming. Being in a small group opened the door for new relationships.

“It really was an opportunity for cross-cultural interaction and for new friendships to begin,” said Natalia Boise, who helps to organize Soft Landing Missoula’s youth program. “These intimate settings where we get to take kids in smaller groups is where those start to happen. That’s really cool to see.”

One of the ways this kind of exchange was facilitated was through a musical chairs-style game. While music played, people would move in a circle, and when the music stopped, whoever ended up in the designated “hot seat” would answer a number of questions about herself from the group.

Girls said this was one of their favorite parts of the weekend because they got to learn so much about one another that they didn’t know prior.

The weekend was also a testament to the power of food as a way to build cultural bridges.

Rather than offer more quintessential “American” meals for the lake trip, youth program organizers decided to give girls the responsibility of picking a dinner recipe from their own households, doing the grocery shopping and preparing the meal for the group on different nights.

Sitting down at a table over meals sparked a lot of conversation about peoples’ different backgrounds and culinary traditions. Some girls even asked for recipes to be shared so they could pass it along to their parents to cook back home! This approach was a new one for these overnight trips, but it’s one that youth program leaders said they hope to incorporate more often since it created such excitement, enjoyment and open exchange about different cultures.

Through all of this bonding and fun in the outdoors and kitchen, girls were also encouraged to develop new empowerment and life skills. For example, they were given a financial grocery budget and tasked with going to the supermarket to shop for the group. They quickly learned how quickly the tab can run up if you go through those aisles without a plan!

Additionally, they visited the Museum of Mountain Flying on their way out of town from Missoula where they got a tour from a female pilot and checked out the inside of firefighting planes. Who knows, maybe we now have a future pilot in our midst!

Finally, throughout the weekend, the girls were given the comfort and privacy of a safe space, one where they could ask hard questions, talk about intimate topics and feel safe speaking without judgment or some of the co-ed dynamics that can give any high schooler pause.

They did that at the dinner table and during activities, but they also participated in relationship-building and reflection exercises that spurred these kinds of conversations. For example, each girl completed a vision board – they cut our pictures from magazines and pasted them onto a poster board to illustrate their hopes, dreams and aspirations for the future.

“It was really important to have that kind of space for them to connect and talk about their experiences,” Natalia said. “There’s a lot of value in having a space set aside for girls, and girls empowerment is really important regardless of the culture.”

Big thanks goes out to Natalia and two Americorp team members, Rachel and Ada from Soft Landing Missoula and the International Rescue Committee, respectively, for coordinating and chaperoning the trip. We also want to thank Jennifer Elison who so graciously allowed us to use her cabin for the weekend and gave the girls a fantastic place to lay their heads after long days out on the lake!

World Refugee Day 2022

“This is the best day of my year. I wish we could have a World Refugee Day party everyday.”

Afghan father

June 20 marks World Refugee Day, a global commemoration established by the United Nations to celebrate the experience of refugees across the world and a time to honor the joy, experiences and resilience of this incredible community. Here at Soft Landing Missoula, we host an annual weekend gathering to commemorate the day centered around what we consider three universal languages: food, music and soccer.

It’s our favorite day of the year because we get the chance to bring together all kinds of amazing humans – refugees and immigrants who call Missoula home, staff members and their families, volunteers, community partners, and many more! This year’s event was no different, but it might have been even more exciting because it was the first World Refugee Day celebration in three years that wasn’t significantly compromised by the COVID-19 pandemic.

We were truly overjoyed to spend the day with families and friends – those we’ve known for years and those newer arrivals we’ve only recently met. This year’s event swelled to roughly 250 people, and it was one heck of a party!

The afternoon began with pick-up soccer games at Fort Missoula, followed by food and a musical performance by Djebe Bara, a community drum and dance group led by Oumar Keita, originally from Guinea. Throughout the day, people participated in a craft project in which they could pin their journey to Missoula on a large wooden map using safety pins and string. Music and dancing lingered into the evening and people from different countries mixed it up on the drums and the dance floor.

As is the case with so much of the work we do at Soft Landing, the World Refugee Day celebration would not have been possible without the generous support of community partners. The International Rescue Committee provided food, the Missoula Alliance Church helped with transportation, the City of Missoula and its Police and Fire Departments offered both outreach and support (the fire truck was a huge hit with kids and adults alike!), and a number of local service providers – including Buckle Up Montana, Let’s Move Missoula, and Moving Mountains – tabled at the event to connect with attendees about their offerings within the community.

Below are a few reflections from those who attended that reflect the joyful spirit of the event!

“The skies threatened and the wind blew cold, but our community was undeterred. Soccer was played! Food was eaten, including a special blend of ice cream created in collaboration with the Big Dipper. People traced their journeys to Missoula on a huge multicolored map. And at the end of the night, our very own Chef Oumar and his drum and dance band, Djebe Bara, played. Kids free-ranged all over the dance floor. Then several Congolese women shimmied out. A few minutes later, a line of Afghan men danced onto the floor. Those drum beats were irresistible! I sat and held my daughter as she dripped ice cream all over me and thought about all that these folks had to get through to arrive at this moment in Missoula MT, dancing together under the mountains.”

Beth Baker, United We Eat Program Manager

“We gathered the more than 50 soccer players into a big circle to welcome them and lay a few ground rules before breaking into teams. We decided to count off by 4’s in order to make the 4 teams, which it turns out is a distinctly American thing to do. The players fumbled and giggled their way through counting by 4s, helping confused neighbors remember their numbers. By the time we got around the circle, everyone was laughing. As teams broke off and handshakes and high fives were given with new teammates, I realized we had more than 10 different countries of origin represented on the field. Once on the field, all those differences melted away into the common language of soccer.”

Molly Cottrell, Deputy Director of Soft Landing Missoula

“World Refugee Day is good because you get to see people your same color. Having many people around who are the same as me makes me feel less alone.”

Congolese middle-schooler

“My favorite moment was when a Congolese man was playing music from his country and then all the people from different countries started dancing. This made me feel the merging of cultures together and that everyone is welcome.”

Rozan Shbib, United We Eat Kitchen Assistant

“I loved it when a young Afghan man got to take a turn on the drums. He looked like he was levitating. He had the biggest smile on his face. It was awesome.”

Maria, Soft Landing Missoula Donor Engagement and Impact Director

“There are many things I like about this day. I get to interact with people from other cultures. I see their clothing, their food.”

Afghan woman and United We Eat chef

“I loved it when Paul Mwingwa from the Democratic Republic of the Congo gave a welcome to the crowd, beginning with a greeting of “hello” in everyone’s native language.”

Mary Poole, Executive Director of Soft Landing Missoula

What is Title 42, and how does it impact people hoping to seek asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border?

The southern border of the United States has been closed to most asylum seekers for over two years thanks to a fairly obscure provision in federal law known as Title 42. Then-President Donald Trump invoked the measure and tightened restrictions on the border in March 2020 citing public health concerns around the transmission of COVID-19. 

On April 1 of this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that closure of the border was not necessary to safeguard against the spread of COVID-19, and President Joe Biden issued an order to roll back Title 42 by May 23. 

Whether the border will actually reopen to asylum seekers remains unclear as Title 42 has become the latest political football in the broader immigration policy debate. 

Access to the opportunity to claim asylum is an internationally recognized, legal path of immigration laid out by the United Nations and enshrined in United States federal law. As such, advocacy organizations like  the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) call Title 42 a “brutal policy” that “strips people at the border of the right to seek asylum.”

Lawmakers in support of continuing Title 42, including Montana Senator Jon Tester and Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen, say it is necessary to prevent a massive influx in the number of people crossing the border that would overwhelm the already-stretched-thin immigration system. 

Despite these projections, Title 42 was designed as a public health measure, not as a tool for immigration policy, so its continued implementation around the border has generated controversy. With that, you’ve probably seen Title 42 popping up in headlines lately, so we wanted to cut through the noise and give you the rundown. 

What is Title 42?  

Title 42 was established in 1944 as part of the Public Health Service Act, giving the federal government a slew of powers to deal with international and national health problems. For example, it funded research grants for what was, at the time, one of the most frightening diseases in the world – tuberculosis – and created the National Cancer Institute. 

Now, it’s back in the news for its surprising – and confusing – role it’s playing in national immigration policy. 

Since Title 42 was invoked in March 2020, Customers and Border Protection has counted more than 1.7 million expulsions from people trying to cross the southern border. Many of these crossings represent people who, in normal times, would have been admitted into the United States while waiting for their asylum cases to be evaluated. (It’s important to note that this number does not reflect 1.7 million unique people, as it’s not uncommon for someone to try to cross more than once.) 

The impact of Title 42 has been felt most acutely by people seeking asylum within the United States at the southern border. Unlike refugees, who gain permission to enter the U.S. through a process that takes place abroad, asylum seekers are legally allowed to petition the country once they are inside of it. Title 42 forces vulnerable families to wait in crowded, often dangerous conditions rife with extortion and human trafficking in Mexico with few resources. 

Immigration officials say that the ability to regulate who comes and goes into the country this way has been essential in maintaining a manageable flow of people across the border.

Should Title 42 be lifted, there would be a significant surge in the number of people that would overwhelm everyone from law enforcement officials to the courts and lawyers responsible for processing asylum applications. The Department of Homeland Security estimates the number of people crossing the border could jump from 8,000 daily to 18,000. 

The Department of Homeland Security has also noted that it could mean more smugglers slip through the cracks bringing drugs or other contraband across the border. 

Does Title 42 apply to everyone at the border? 

Not all asylum seekers have been treated equally under the provision.

When Russia invaded Ukraine, many Ukrainians started flying to the United States’ border with Mexico to escape the war unfolding in their home country. There, they encountered tens of thousands of people fleeing persecution and violence in Haiti, Cameroon and Central American countries who were unable to cross due to Title 42. They also encountered Russian and Belarussians hoping to enter and seek asylum. 

However, it was only Ukrainians who were able to be exempted from the public health order and seek asylum without much issue. According to Customs and Border Protection, immigration officials encountered 272 Ukrainians at the U.S.-Mexico border in February 2022. Only one was expelled under Title 42. Meanwhile, 69% of Guatemalans, 68% of Hondurans and 64% of El Savadorans were expelled under the same Title 42 provision, according to Time. 

“This heightened sense of responsibility, while commendable, is noticeably different from what Americans usually do when there is a conflict where you have millions of refugees,” Sahar Aziz, professor of law at Rutgers University, said to Time Magazine. 

 What’s next? 

The political winds have shifted on Title 42 since two years ago when it was first invoked. Fewer Democrats are reportedly in favor of rolling it back now, particularly given proximity to midterm elections this fall when immigration could impact voting behaviors. 

Congress has the authority to delay lifting Title 42. To date, that action has been included as part of a larger $10 billion COVID-19 federal relief bill. A growing number of lawmakers say they will vote against the aid package if it includes the repeal of Title 42, so they are pushing Congressional leadership to hold a separate vote on the immigration policy as a standalone. 

There seems to be growing traction for this approach. 

Tester, one of Montana’s two senators, has signed on to bipartisan legislation that would delay lifting the migration restrictions and requires the presidential administration to present a plan for how to address the likely surge in border crossings.

“I’m also going to fight tooth and nail to make sure that we address staffing shortages at Customs and Border Patrol and to ensure that agents from the northern border won’t be frequently reassigned to handle any influx of migrants caused by the change in policy,” Tester said in a statement.  

At the same time, a federal judge is evaluating a lawsuit brought by more than 20 state attorneys general, including Knudsen representing Montana, that would block the White House from rescinding the Title 42 order. The District Court judge has promised to issue a ruling on whether to allow a nationwide injunction on Title 42’s repeal by May 23, the day it is otherwise set to expire. 

Though Soft Landing doesn’t currently work with anyone directly impacted by Title 42 and its current interpretation, we still feel it is essential that we do the hard work of informing ourselves. You can never fully understand the totality of the experiences someone holds within a community, and, in general, we see firsthand how borders impact so many people. This desire to inform ourselves and our community is particularly important when it comes to issues like Title 42, one that is exceedingly complicated where Montana lawmakers are playing an active role in the conversation.