Why Can't Americans Give Money to Bring Refugees Here?

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Syrian refugees from Raqqa rest near their tents in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon October 19. While Americans can donate to refugees already in the United States, they cannot donate money to cover the costs of bringing more Syrian refugees into the country. Alia Haju/Reuters

This article first appeared on the Anything Peaceful site.

The holiday season is traditionally reserved for spending quality time with family, exchanging gifts and celebrating the start of a new year.

It's also marked by huge amounts of charitable giving. The Center on Philanthropy finds one-fourth of all charitable giving—about $90 billion!—occurs between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day.

But the generosity of the American people has been given an unfortunate ceiling. While Americans can donate to refugees already in the United States, they cannot donate money to cover the costs of bringing more Syrian refugees into the country. Canadians can, and the recent outpouring of support for Syrians in that country has been enormous.

This holiday season, lawmakers should legalize American generosity in the fight for more refugee resettlement.

The American people give tremendously to educational, humanitarian, religious and other groups. For contributors, which include the billionaire philanthropist and the small donation-millennial, their giving increases the ability for groups to carry out their missions—whether it being the spread of ideas or aid to the needy. In 2014, about $358 billion was donated to charitable organizations from individuals, foundations and corporations.

The Syrian refugee crisis was the most pressing international issue of 2015, as millions fled their homes in support of safety and shelter. And unfortunately there is no end in sight for millions in danger.

But Americans are unable to exercise their philanthropic spirit to increase the number of refugees admitted in the United States. Refugee law has placed an arbitrary limit on the compassion and generosity of the American people. The president sets the limit for refugees allowed in the country, and no amount of philanthropic donation can increase that number.

It hasn't always been this way. In the late 1980s, the Cuban American National Foundation helped resettle Cubans fleeing communism. In 1990, two Jewish organizations rescued Soviet Jews. In total, these groups saved 16,000 refugees using private dollars. Charitable groups and individuals should be accorded the same opportunity today. Empowering the private sector to resettle refugees is an easy and inexpensive way to save lives.

A successful model for better refugee policy is close at hand. Canada's private refugee sponsorship program has run for 37 years and has, so far, resettled more than 235,000 refugees from around the world, making it the world's fourth most generous refugee program. The former Mayor of Toronto John Sewell said Canada's private sponsorship program is "absolutely brilliant."

The United States, with 320 million people and a robust history of refugee resettlement, has decided to admit just 10,000 Syrians for FY 2016. Canada, with a population one-tenth of ours and smaller than the state of California, will resettle 25,000—by the end of February! This includes 10,000 using private sponsorship.

Lifeline Syria, an organization dedicated to bringing refugees to Toronto, has over 250 groups signed up in the city to resettle Syrians. They have received so much interest this fall that their computers servers crashed.

Each week, groups across Canada hold information sessions for those interested in contributing, volunteering, and resettling refugees. Why isn't this happening here?

A 2007 Canadian government study found that, in regard to resettlement success, privately-sponsored refugees report higher rates of satisfaction after six months and after two years, than do government-sponsored refugees. Canada also found that privately-sponsored refugees become self-supporting more quickly than government-sponsored refugees.

In October, a coalition of Syrian, Arab, Turkish, and Muslim American organizations sent a letter to President Obama requesting that he allow private organizations to sponsor refugees above the existing limits if they cover the costs of resettling them.

And a growing number of scholars, lawmakers, and international aid organizations have endorsed the concept of privately-funded resettlement as a means to increase refugee numbers. During what the UN calls the biggest humanitarian crisis of our era, not allowing private, voluntary sponsorship is shameful.

The image of a three-year-old Syrian boy, Aylan, lying lifeless on a Turkish beach broke hearts across the country. Americans moved by that image ought to be able to do more than shed a tear and send a few dollars abroad. They ought to be able and open their wallets and homes to refugees families, like Aylan's, who would not otherwise be able to come to America—who might die in desperate flight from danger.

As Americans write out checks to their favorite charities in the waning days of 2015, we should remember that our money could go towards saving the lives of Syrian children and families—if only lawmakers let us. Tapping into the American philanthropic spirit could save thousands of lives. We ought to let it, and the holiday season is the perfect time to show Congress our willingness to help.

Matthew La Corte is a Research Associate at the Niskanen Center where he focuses on immigration policy.