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Presidents’ Alliance announces RESPONSE refugee campaign

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The Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration has created the RESPONSE campaign to open up private college and university sponsorships of refugee students.

The aim of the campaign is to give refugees a clearer pathway to lawful permanent residence and citizenship, while also giving them the opportunity to access higher education they may not have been able to in their home countries.

“It cannot be just one path or the other – we actually have to open up multiple pathways”

The launch coincides with the release of  University Sponsorship of Refugee Students: Initiative on Increasing US Education Pathways for Refugee Students, a report outlining how private university sponsorship could work.

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RESPONSE refers to “Refugee Sponsorship for Education”, co-founder and executive director of the Presidents’ Alliance Miriam Feldblum detailed.

One of the main recommendations of the report is introducing a new visa category – the P-4 visa – specifically used to enter the US through a university sponsorship program.

“The ushering in of the Biden administration made us recognise really quickly there certainly was a commitment to return the refugee system to what it had been, trying to really increase the US admission of refugees and to become once again a leader in that,” Feldblum told The PIE News.

“What this system would mean is that a refugee student who’s abroad, not yet in the US, could apply simultaneously for admission to a college or university and be vetted and accepted as a refugee to the US, coming in as a refugee to the US and as a first-year student.”

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The campaign has been marketed as “student-centered” with a focus on refugee learners’ inherent strengths, “placing students’ prior knowledge, experience, and learning in the foreground of decision-making and program design”.

“We have to partner with students, with advocates, with other sectors to develop recommendations, engage in solutions, and engage with the administration and other stakeholders,” Feldblum stressed.

The report states that through private sponsorship, refugees will be “paired with groups of individuals, such as local clubs, businesses, university communities, or faith groups, who commit to providing financial, logistical, and integration support for refugees accepted through resettlement programs”.

“We think that that the US should be fully focused on increasing the number of refugees the US admits,” said Feldblum.

“It cannot be just one path or the other – we actually have to open up multiple pathways.”

The president of Eastern Connecticut State University Elsa Nuñez was “pleased with the public attention” the initiative has received to date, but added that things would not be completely straightforward.

“There are myriad of issues that must be addressed as we anticipate recruiting and enrolling 150 refugee students over the next five years,” Nuñez told The PIE.

“Even in such small numbers during the early years of the program, admitting refugees into this country using our current visa system presents challenges to the students, to their sponsoring colleges and institutions, and for government agencies.”

Organisations that act as a “bridge connecting refugee students overseas, higher ed institutions and the US Refugee Admissions Program”, will work together in tandem so that students get to the US and can resettle quicker, without cutting corners on vetting and safety.

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“We don’t have the expertise in-house to really implement all the steps, so the implementing organisations can really help provide the work of identifying, recruiting, working with these individuals for selection and then continuing support,” Feldblum said.

Louis Caldera, a co-founder and co-chair of the Presidents’ Alliance and a former president of the University of New Mexico, also noted the inspiration taken from similar programs close to home.

“The Canadian experience was both inspirational and a model from which to begin adapting our recommendations to the US context,” Caldera told The PIE News.

“Hopefully the US will be a model for other countries in the same way as we were inspired by the Canadian effort,” Caldera added.

“As the proposed program changes the lives of the students we enrol, as well as their families, it also has the potential to adjust our current visa model to reflect today’s global refugee situation,” Nuñez further clarified.

“In so doing, it can serve as an inspirational model for other refugee resettlement programs here in the US and abroad,” she added.

Feldblum explained that despite the initiative being born in the age of Covid, it was in the works before the pandemic, and a response to a much bigger problem.

“The climate crisis is creating even more right a kind of a greater wave of displaced persons”

“The urgency and need for higher education to engage in and develop plans to support displaced students and refugee students has grown, because the pandemic slowed things down in some ways,” Feldblum explained.

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“The climate crisis is creating even more right a kind of a greater wave of displaced persons,” she added.

Concurrently, the Presidents’ Alliance has also submitted recommendations to update the F-1 visa program to “better accommodate refugee students”.

Some of these include lobbying the US Department of Homeland Security to announce Special Student Relief for all students from countries with “emergent circumstances”, without relying on a request from the regulated community for such action.

Some of the circumstances that would be eligible are natural disasters, war and military conflicts and national or international financial crises.

It also recommends the Department of State “re-issues consular guidance and ensure training regarding how to interpret immigrant intent”, including restoring “residence abroad” language to the Foreign Affairs manual.

Importantly, it recommends that transparency and clearly understandable information is given to students and Congress when it comes to visa denials, and provide alternatives to in-person consular interviews where movements for refugees are restricted.

“The key for me is for colleges and universities to not be in this alone, but to have many partners within the campus and local community who contribute to the success of the program, including students, alumni and local non-profit organisations,” Caldera highlighted.

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