Welcoming Communities Transatlantic Exchange Program: Public Diplomacy for Immigrant and Refugee Integration

(This article was first published in Public Diplomacy Magazine’s Summer/Fall 2018 edition “Border Diplomacy” @ University of Southern California under the title:  “Refugee integration in the United States and Germany and the Welcoming Communities Transatlantic Exchange program.”)


After the 2016 U.S. elections, many of us in the immigrant integration field were uncertain of what to expect from the new administration. It was not long before several Executive Orders would change the landscape of our work and our ability to help those in need of protection. Since January 2017 we have seen three different Travel Bans –including one Refugee Ban; the end of the in-country refugee processing for Central American Minors and an unprecedented reduction of the yearly quota of refugee admissions to the United States. In turn, hundreds of refugee resettlement programs are experiencing budget cuts and brain drain,  constraining the capacity of reception and placement operations of the US Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP)

A public-private partnership, the USRAP is the world´s largest formal refugee resettlement program. Together with Australia and Canada it receives 90% of the refugees referred by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)[1]. Until recently, it had been a model for other countries interested in becoming active in resettlement.

For fiscal year 2018, U. S. resettlement agencies are anticipating the lowest number of refugee admissions in the program´s history, given that as of August 31, 2018 only 19,899 refugees[2]have arrived (of a maximum set capacity determined by the President at 45,000)[3]. For comparison, since 1980, the United States has resettled as many as 207,116 refugees per year (in 1980, mostly Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees) and as few as 27,131[4](in 2002, due to a temporary slow-down of the program post- September 11).

Global Refugee Crisis

While the need for protection for people on the move has been on the rise in the past decade, the global refugee crisis became the center of attention in 2015, shortly after the death of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned in the Mediterranean as his family was trying to reach Europe. That devastating image of Alan facing down the beach wearing a red shirt woke people up  around the world and made the dimension of the problem more evident than ever before. Former High Commissioner for Refugees and now UN Secretary General António Guterres shortly after the incident very bluntly said: “Unfortunately only when the poor enter the halls of the rich, do the rich notice that the poor exist.”[5]

U.S. Refugee Crisis

While this was just beginning across the Atlantic, the United States had already been dealing with its own refugee crisis due to a surge of arrivals of immigrants in need of humanitarian protection during 2014. Thousands of unaccompanied minors from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala arrived in the U.S., collapsing an already backed-up asylum system.

Since then, more than 130,000[6]unaccompanied minors have arrived to the United States. And more continue to arrive to date. California has had the largest influx of unaccompanied minors seeking asylum from the Northern Triangle, who were escaping violence in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. From October 2014 to September 2017, more than 18,000 migrant children that arrived to the United States without a parent were connected with their families in California[7].

U.S. Response

The U.S. refugee crisis did not make the global news for as long as the Mediterranean crisis did, but it received plenty of attention by the service community in Los Angeles.

In the United States, unaccompanied undocumented minors are placed in special homes for short-term care under the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement. The most urgent need of the children, after being reunified with their family members in the United States, is securing legal representation to obtain relief from deportation, which is a sometimes long and complex process. This explains why the initial response to the crisis of Central American refugees in 2014 came from the legal service community (NGOs) which activated networks like the Asylum Collaborative of Los Angeles and convened service providers, local governments, school districts and community-based organizations to provide community education to parents and custodians in the city and to find ways to assist and protect the children from deportation. The Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, under the leadership of Dr. Linda Lopez, involved local foundations to support and expand the work on behalf of these children and ensured there were enough shelters in the Los Angeles area while they were reunified with family members. From these collaborations, many new networks developed, such as the Unaccompanied Undocumented Minors network that includes legal and social service providers in addition to other initiatives from faith-based groups, such as the UCARE (Unaccompanied Central American Refugee Empowerment) Coalition, that have been able to provide more assistance to the refugee children beyond the legal services, that have helped them heal and integrate into their new communities. Dealing with this crisis allowed many of us to connect as a community and showed us the support for social justice initiatives in our city. While it has been four years since the crisis began, there are different sets of challenges now that require our attention, such as family reintegration, avoiding school dropout and accessing employment without sacrificing higher education.

Germany Background

During 2015, Germany received over 1 million people seeking protection (asylum seekers)[8]from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other war-torn countries. Upon the arrival and registration, asylum seekers would be distributed to different Länder(state) and assigned housing accordingly.

Once settled, they would start the application process and their cases would be evaluated under the different forms of relief. This burden-sharing system and the availability of services for asylum seekers are both very different from the United States, where asylum seekers that are out of detention centers do not have access to public benefits or public housing.

In Germany, between 2015 and 2016, hundreds of citizen-led initiatives appeared on the map, as the volunteerism movement in the country experienced a historic peak. Retired teachers, private sector professionals, heads of households and students: everybody wanted to give them shelter and assist in the response. However, with time, it became more challenging to keep volunteers engaged into integration efforts and not just limited to in-kind donations. Some local governments addressed this issue with the creation of “Welcome Points” that were of help not just to the new arrivals but also to members of the receiving communities interested in assisting.

A number of events and incidents of crime and the respective media coverage (or lack thereof) at the end of 2016 created tensions in the receiving communities and the perception of refugees and asylum seekers changed significantly.

Considering the varied demographics of the arrival population and their odyssey to get to Germany, there was no one-size-fits-allpreferred type of assistance. A holistic approach was needed to tend to the multiple necessities of the displaced. Housing, feeding and distributing the new arrivals throughout Germany using the already mentioned distribution quota (Königsteiner Schlüssel)[10]were the primary concerns. However, a long-term plan and new ideas were crucial to assist in the process of integration of these new arrivals to Germany.

The Welcoming Communities Transatlantic Exchange (WCTE) program was conceived in 2015 to create a support network for German integration practitioners. At that time, given the reputation and dynamism of the United States’ immigrant integration landscape, they looked across the Atlantic for guidance to develop new initiatives and to envision the long-term impact of those arrivals. Yearly since 2016, this exchange program has allowed 25 professionals from five German communities to travel to the United States and 16 professionals from four U.S. communities travel to Germany. In 2017, Los Angeles was selected as one of the U.S. communities to participate in the exchange. By the end of the program in 2018, 27 communities will have benefited from this exchange.

Organized and administered by Cultural Vistas, Welcoming America and the Heinrich Böll Stiftung North America, this program is funded by the Transatlantic Program of the Government of the Federal Republic of Germany’s Ministry of Economics and Energy (BMWi)  as well as by the U.S. Department of State, the Robert Bosch Stiftung, the Heinrich Böll Stiftung and BMW Group. Its aim is to create welcoming communities by sharing and learning best practices and challenges experienced in welcoming immigrants and refugees in both countries.

The political environment and tensions around the topic of immigration have changed significantly in both countries since the inception of the program which needs to focus on integration and self-reliance of new arrivals and the impact of such groups in the receiving communities, their economies and cultures.

Need for Innovative Solutions & Sharing Experiences

In comparison to Germany, U.S. numbers for 2015 (approximately 70,000 formally accepted refugees, 26,000 asylees[11]and 120,000 asylum seekers[12]) sound much lower than the 1 million arrivals that Germany received. We should take into account, however, that the U.S. does not receive spontaneous arrivals due to its own border controls and Mexico’s, whose government between 2014 and 2016 detained and deported more than 450,000 migrants[13]through its Southern Border Program. Additionally, those that manage to enter the United States without a visa, are not registered until they request a form of protection, so the U.S. numbers could be much higher if these factors were considered.

Throughout 2016, a group of colleagues and I had been reading and hearing about the German response to the refugee crisis, and learned about this exchange opportunity through Welcoming America, which we thought would be invaluable as we looked for innovative solutions to our ongoing refugee crisis. We thought that sitting down with our German counterparts and discussing long-term strategies for assisting unaccompanied refugee minors and other new arrivals would be a good way to think outside the box. We also thought that some of our lessons learned should be shared with them. Our team included Nicole Mitchell, from the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD); Dr. Linda Lopez, from the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs; Reverend David Farley, from Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE); and me, representing the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA) and the Refugee Forum of Los Angeles. Our proposal was selected to participate in the 2017 Welcoming Communities Transatlantic Exchange program together with Nashville, Detroit and Salt Lake City. As part of this exchange, we would receive the five selected German communities from the cities of Düsseldorf, Freiburg, Kreis Duren, Leipzig and Münster and later in the year travel to Germany to continue the exercise.

Los Angeles: Agenda

Twenty-five German immigrant integration professionals came to the United States between April and May 2017, a mix of state and civil society actors including elected officials, local government employees, volunteers and NGO practitioners. They visited Washington DC together and were later split in three smaller groups that traveled to Detroit, Nashville and Salt Lake City, respectively. All five communities concluded their tour in Los Angeles, where “Team L.A.” had prepared a packed agenda around two topics: Los Angeles as a Welcoming City, and how we have been responding to the Unaccompanied Refugee Minors Crisis since 2014. From May 5thto May 9ththey met with different stakeholders from the public and private sectors involved in immigrant and refugee welcome.

The program started with a visit to a Welcome Center that serves the unaccompanied minors and their family members upon reunification. We started by talking about the lack of government-sponsored legal representation for immigrants in proceedings –including children– which, together with the fact that children can be put in deportation proceedings, was quite shocking for our guests. During that visit, they learned of all different actors involved in the journey upon entry to the United States and how we were able to create a coordinated response.

On the following days, the participants heard about services for immigrants through the Citizenship Corners (recently rebranded “New American Centers”) at the Los Angeles Public Library; they visited City Hall and learned about the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, the creation of the Los Angeles Justice Fund and the role of the Los Angeles Police Department protecting immigrants and its historic Special Order 40. Additionally, participants had a chance to visit the largest Mexican Consulate General in the world, where they were impressed by the numerous services offered to the approximately 1 million citizens who are part of the Mexican diaspora residing in the city as well as the diplomatic efforts to build relationships between the State of California and Mexico. Another important meeting during their visit was with resettlement agencies and other members of the Refugee Forum of Los Angeles, where they exchanged ideas around some of their innovative projects to provide psycho-social support for refugee minors.

The L.A. program concluded with a panel led by USC Professor Manuel Pastor, who wrapped up the learning experience with a discussion on the city’s landscape and evolution and its leadership in immigrant integration. Here, the German delegates met leaders of two major local foundations (Weingart Foundation and California Community Foundation) who contributed substantially to the creation of the L.A. Justice Fund, which has distributed 10 million dollars to local non-profit agencies to represent immigrants in removal proceedings- and who were also instrumental in the creation of the Our Children Relief Fund[14]in 2014whichfunded operations of non-profit agencies in Los Angeles County that were providing immigrant integration supported services to         unaccompanied minors.

This was an enriching experience for both the German and the American teams, where we built bridges, discovered our commonalities, created new bonds and strengthened existing ones that would allow us to do our work with a fresh perspective. We felt empowered after showing them the Los Angeles we know: a caring and compassionate community full of citizen diplomats that will stand for the immigrants, the refugees and the voiceless. LaLa Landis so much more than what they had expected and seeing our city through their eyes, gave us great satisfaction to continue our fight.


German WCTE delegates during a visit to LA City Hall, May 2017

Team L.A. goes to Germany

Overall, 2017 was a difficult year for immigrant integration practitioners in the United States: refugee admissions dropped following the temporary halt of the refugee program; Executive

Orders were issued imposing three different travel bans for immigrants from Muslim majority countries and numerous lawsuits were filed to challenge the bans while hundreds of protests across the country became the norm. The community went through unbearable uncertainty but at a local and state levels, our partnerships strengthened and our institutions responded with bold alternatives and funding for programs that would ultimately allow the protection of those immigrants already here, their families and our communities.

Just one week after our German colleagues left Los Angeles in May 2017, I went on maternity leave and embarked in a whole new journey. 2017 was indeed a hard year, but in spite all those difficulties, the two things that I will remember the most are the birth of my daughter Olivia and participating in this exchange. Fortunately, in November of 2017 I got to combine both of them, as Team L.A. traveled to Germany with a five-month old baby, ready to learn about immigrant and refugee integration practices.

Our teams learned about the way Germany received and welcomed asylum seekers and were impressed with the availability of services for immigrants in need of humanitarian protection whilst their cases were yet to be decided. The themes covered during the exchange were: the German Federal system and the asylum process; refugee housing; integration response; policies and procedures at local, Federal and E.U. levels; empowerment of refugees and immigrants; civic participation for migrants; workplace integration (vocational training) and the role of charities.

We started the German tour in Düsseldorf where we met with all the selected U.S. teams from Detroit, Nashville and Salt Lake City and our German colleagues. This was our introduction to the German refugee resettlement system, at the capital of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), the most populated state in Germany. We met with NGO staff, volunteers, refugees and local and regional civic officials (including the new Commissioner for Refugees, the Mayor of Düsseldorf and the Head of Home Affairs at the State Chancellery for the NRW to the European Union). The diversity of stakeholders involved in the process was eye-opening, and the type of services they aimed at providing was inspiring.

Access to housing was one of the services that differ considerably from our services in the United States, especially when talking about asylum seekers. While their cases are still to be decided (which most likely takes three to four years), asylum seekers in the U.S. do not have access to temporary housing or public benefits. This is a big challenge in a city as expensive as Los Angeles, and seeing that Germany had given priority to this service to new arrivals, was mesmerizing.

team LA

Members of the LA Team: David Farley (UMC/CLUE), Dr. Linda Lopez (Mayor’s Office), Nicole Mitchell (LAUSD-SEPA Center), Carolina Sheinfeld (LAFLA &Refugee Forum of LA) with daughter Olivia. (Nov. 2017)

From Düsseldorf, some of us traveled to Freiburg, in the Southwest of Germany, at the borders with both Switzerland and France. By meeting with different stakeholders, we had started to understand the distribution of responsibilities among them: the Federal government dealt with initial registration and distribution; the States/Länder dealt with housing; counties and urban districts had to do with their preliminary accommodations and municipalities with subsequent accommodations and, ultimately, the individual would be responsible for their permanent housing. In the case of Freiburg they provide public housing for 3,000 people and 55% of them are asylum seekers.

We visited the Office of Migration and Integration (Abteilung für Migration und Integration, AMI for its acronym in German), where we witnessed a great model of service provision and highlight of the exchange: a one-stop shop for asylum seekers, whose five different departments could help with integration, housing, benefits and immigration/legal services.

Also in Freiburg, we met with colleagues from Caritas that are providing legal and social services to unaccompanied refugee minors, which has been one of our focuses in Los Angeles since 2014. They shared that in 2015, the Federal government responded with funding to support specialized integration services, which allowed their teams to grow and specialize. Also, it was reaffirming to hear that they, too, were paying attention to staff and volunteer wellness, to ensure the sustainability of the sector. While in Southern California (and through the United States) we see multiple nationalities seeking asylum according to political changes around the world and the diasporas, we learned that in Germany five countries are given preference at the time of getting refugee status: Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Eritrea and Syria. This can make it more difficult for those coming from North and Sub-Saharan Africa, who might have valid claims of persecution and are also seeking humanitarian protection.

An area that was very different between Germany and the United States was language acquisition and integration. In the U.S., the main focus for integration is obtaining employment, regardless of the refugee´s limited English proficiency. This may be connected with the fact that refugees with limited English proficiency can still get a job in the United States (which is very understandable in cities with large immigrant populations like Los Angeles). Differently, in Germany, while labor market integration is their paramount objective, the integration path for immigrants requires learning the German language first.

The other integration area that differs from the U.S. is citizenship. Having worked in the immigrant integration field for almost 15 years, I can attest that the final goal and the ultimate protection for humanitarian immigrants is citizenship. Allowing them to have a new nationality, the one of the country that received and protected them, fills refugees with pride and honor. It will also open additional doors to them, as U.S. citizens can vote, run for office, work for the Federal Government and petition for additional family members. So naturalizing to become a United States citizen is the ultimate goal. From my point of view, in Germany that did not seem to be a priority yet. While Germany has a long-standing tradition of being an immigration country and while availability of services to immigrants is quite comprehensive, with this latest wave of humanitarian immigrants that started in 2015 the focus still seems to be on meeting immediate needs and not on long-term strategies such as citizenship and political participation. However, I have no doubt that as the new groups adjust and contribute to German society and as the perception of them as just vulnerable immigrants, integration priorities will continue to evolve and more weight will be given to these groups becoming German citizens.

At the conclusion of our visit to Germany, U.S. teams designed and committed to action plans for each of their cities, inspired by what we witnessed. In Los Angeles, for the past five months, we have been actively working to make the city more welcoming by connecting more with the receiving community. We returned to Los Angeles energized with vibrant ideas and with new partners whom we expect to continue building vibrant and resilient communities with.

At a key moment for the relationship between the United States Government and the German Federal Government, thistype of exchanges at a citizen level, bring a breeze of fresh air and help build bridges for transatlantic collaboration on a topic where a mutual exchange can provide solutions to some of our common problems around immigrant integration.

After three years of exchanges, Cultural Vistas, Welcoming America and Heinrich Böll Foundation will conclude the WCTE in November 2018 with a conference organized and led by alumni of the program. The presentations will combine U.S. and German team members under the theme “The Future of Welcoming Communities” and will take place in Berlin. Although the refugee rights sector has been experiencing challenging times, the WCTE program has been able to revitalize the efforts of these refugee integration practitioners in both countries in the hope that its impact will continue well into the future and that newcomers in need of humanitarian protection receive the support they need to start new lives and become integral part of their new communities.



[1]Proposed Refugee Admissions for Fiscal Year 2017. Report to The Congress. U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, September 15, 2016, online at: https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/262168.pdf

[2]Refugee Admissions Report, U.S. Department of State, online: https://www.wrapsnet.org/admissions-and-arrivals/ 

[3]Presidential Determination on Refugee Admissions for Fiscal Year 2018, Memorandum for the Secretary of State, online at: https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2017/10/23/2017-23140/presidential-determination-on-refugee-admissions-for-fiscal-year-2018

[4]Admissions and Arrival Reports, Historical Arrivals Broken Down by Region (1975-Present), U.S. Department of State, Refugee Processing Center, online at:http://www.wrapsnet.org/s/Graph-Refugee-Admissions-since-19753518.xls

[5]U.N. says world waited too long to act on refugee crisis, Louis Charbonneau, Reuters, September 26, 2015, online at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-un-assembly-refugees/u-n-says-world-waited-too-long-to-act-on-refugee-crisis-idUSKCN0RQ0RJ20150927

[6]Unaccompanied Alien Children Released to Sponsors By State, June 30, 2017, Office of Refugee Resettlement, online at:



[8]Migration structure and Demographic data on persons seeking protection, by reference year. Online at: https://www.destatis.de/EN/FactsFigures/SocietyState/Population/MigrationIntegration/Tables_ProtectionSeekers/TablesMigrationStructureDemographicDataPersonsSeekingProtectionYear.html;jsessionid=39BDEE3BE43D86C3C51FD4086BCF4DC3.InternetLive2

[9]Migration, Asylum and Refugees in Germany: Understanding the Data, International Organization for Migration, January 22, 2016. Online at: https://www.iom.int/news/migration-asylum-and-refugees-germany-understanding-data

[10]Initial Distribution of Asylum Seekers, German Federal Office of Migration and Refugees, http://www.bamf.de/EN/Fluechtlingsschutz/AblaufAsylv/Erstverteilung/erstverteilung-node.html

[11]Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics Annual Flow Report: http://www.dhs.gov/immigration-statistics.

[12]USCIS Asylum Division Affirmative Asylum Statistics, December 2015. Online at: https://www.uscis.gov/sites/default/files/USCIS/Outreach/PED-Affirmative_Asylum_Stats_2015-09.pdf

[13]Mexico’s Secretariat of Interior, Statistical Bulletins, online: http://www.politicamigratoria.gob.mx/es_mx/SEGOB/Boletines_Estadisticos

[14]Group Of Los Angeles County Foundations And Mayor Eric Garcetti Announce Relief Fund To Help Address The Humanitarian Needs Of Unaccompanied Minors, California Community Foundation, online at: https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/group-of-los-angeles-county-foundations-and-mayor-eric-garcetti-announce-relief-fund-to-help-address-the-humanitarian-needs-of-unaccompanied-minors-270356031.html

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