In a major effort to open the door to more refugee resettlement, the Biden administration will begin inviting ordinary Americans to directly sponsor the arrival of thousands of displaced people from around the world into their communities.
A new policy allowing the participation of private citizens in resettling vulnerable families, to be announced on Thursday, marks the most significant reorientation of the U.S. refugee program since its inception more than four decades ago.
Since 1980, nine federally funded nonprofits, such as the International Rescue Committee and HIAS, have been charged with managing all U.S. refugee resettlement, including finding housing and work for arriving families, as well as enrolling them in English classes and helping them secure medical appointments and learn bus routes.
Under the new program, called “Welcome Corps,” private citizens will now also take on logistical and financial responsibility for helping thousands of refugees transition to life in the United States.
The initiative is similar to a model used in about 15 countries, including Canada, where it has been in place for many years and deemed widely successful by resettlement experts.
Turning to ordinary Americans to help settle refugees could substantially increase the number of displaced people resettled from Africa, the Middle East and other troubled areas — and also defray the cost for the government. The number of refugees welcomed into the United States plummeted during the Trump administration, which gutted the refugee admissions infrastructure both in the United States and abroad, where vulnerable people seeking safe haven are vetted, interviewed and processed.
Senior officials at the State Department, which is establishing the new initiative, said that it was part of the administration’s broader agenda to strengthen, modernize and expand the U.S. refugee program. It can also serve to bolster public support for refugee resettlement, which is important to advancing U.S. foreign policy objectives, they said.
“We believe that by engaging more Americans in this effort, we will rebuild broad public support for the refugee resettlement program,” said Julieta Valls Noyes, assistant secretary for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration at the State Department, ahead of the program’s launch.
The nonprofits contracted by the State Department to manage refugee resettlement have struggled since the Trump administration decimated the program, slashing annual refugee arrivals to about 11,000 from 70,000, forcing the nonprofits to lay off staff and shutter operations in many places.
President Biden took office pledging to admit thousands more refugees. The nonprofits were still ramping up again when the United States exodus from Afghanistan in August 2021 fueled a mass evacuation of allies. Limited resources were diverted to the evacuees, and refugees from other countries, some of whom had already waited years to reach the United States, were even further delayed.
More on U.S. Immigration
- Biden at the Border: President Biden made his first visit to the border since taking office, arriving in El Paso amid a historic migrant surge and anger from both parties about how he is handling it.
- Border Crossings: Mr. Biden announced a far-reaching crackdown on people who seek refuge at the border with Mexico, dramatically expanding restrictions on asylum.
- New Citizens: Nearly one million immigrants became Americans in 2022, after the pandemic prevented hundreds of thousands of people from voting in the 2020 election.
- In Texas: A scandal-plagued private border fence at the border with Mexico is essentially orphaned, functionally useless and, engineers found, at risk of floating away in a flood.
The new private sponsorship initiative aims to expand the capacity of the program and accelerate arrivals. Groups of a minimum of five people who are willing to sponsor a refugee family must raise at least $2,275 per refugee to participate. The private sponsors will be expected to provide the same broad support to new refugee families as the nonprofit agencies, which will continue to resettle the vast majority of refugees.
In Welcome Corps’ first year, the goal is to mobilize at least 10,000 Americans to help at least 5,000 refugees, and then scale up to make the program an enduring feature of the refugee system. The first refugees who will be assisted by private sponsors are expected to arrive in April.
“We hope it will become as widely known and engage as many Americans as the Peace Corps,” Ms. Valls Noyes said. “It will tap into the energy, expertise and resources of communities across the country, and will strengthen them in the process.’’
Mr. Biden issued an executive order in February 2021 that called for the establishment of a public-private partnership to help achieve his goal of admitting more refugees. Yet his administration has thus far struggled to revive the program.
Refugee arrivals have remained low as both the government and nonprofits have scrambled to handle the influx of some 85,000 Afghans following the U.S. military withdrawal in August 2021. Then early last year, the government was confronted with a new humanitarian crisis created by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The coronavirus pandemic hampered processing and vetting of applicants.
In the 2022 fiscal year, the United States received about 25,000 refugees, only 20 percent of 125,000 slots allocated by the Biden administration, with the shortfall attributed to the challenges of rebuilding the refugee program and the need to divert still-limited resources to integrate Afghan evacuees. The president set a target of 125,000 for the current fiscal year, which started on Oct. 1. Only 6,750 had arrived through the three months ending in December.
“This is not a panacea, but putting sponsorship squarely in the hands of Americans could dramatically increase America’s capacity to welcome refugees,” said Sasha Chanoff, chief executive of RefugePoint, a nonprofit that identifies refugees around the globe for resettlement to the United States and other countries.
The private sponsorship model has already been tested on a trial basis over the past two years with refugees from Afghanistan and Ukraine.
In those cases, private sponsors were invited to come forward to augment the capacity of the overburdened resettlement agencies.
In October 2021, the State Department partnered with the Community Sponsorship Hub, a nonprofit that joined forces with local and national organizations to start a sponsor circle program for Afghans.
Americans in 33 states formed groups at churches, synagogues and among friends to raise money and assist Afghan families. “We found that Americans are eager and willing to welcome when they are given the opportunity to do so, ” said Sarah Krause, executive director and co-founder of the Community Sponsorship Hub.
In April of last year, the Homeland Security Department introduced Uniting for Ukraine, a sponsorship-based parole program for Ukrainian war evacuees, which has attracted Americans across the country willing to assist the refugees.
And amid a surge of undocumented migration at the southern border, the Biden administration recently introduced another sponsorship program to enable up to 30,000 migrants each month from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela to enter the United States if they have an American sponsor to support them.
Like the Ukrainians, migrants from those countries will be permitted to live and work legally in the country, but only temporarily.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that the new Welcome Corps initiative would build on the “extraordinary response of the American people” in those earlier trial programs.
“This new private sponsorship program is coming at a noisy time, with all these other programs,” said Mr. Chanoff of RefugePoint. “But unlike the recent parole programs, it is not meant to be an emergency response. It’s a thought-out, deliberate and new dimension of the resettlement program for refugees who can apply for citizenship after five years.”
The United States has brought in more than 3.2 million refugees since passing the 1980 Refugee Act, and a majority are now citizens, he said.
The Community Sponsorship Hub will vet and certify private sponsors who will apply online at welcomecorps.org, a process that will involve background checks and proving financial capability. Sponsors must independently raise the $2,275 for each person they resettle, the same sum currently provided by the government to nonprofits that resettle refugees. The private sponsors will not receive government money, but philanthropic funds might become available in the future for private citizens who want to participate but do not have the money to do so.
Once they are matched, the American sponsors will be responsible for directly providing essential assistance to refugees for their first 90 days in their communities. This assistance includes helping refugees find housing and employment, enrolling children in school and connecting refugees to essential services in the community.
Mary Brooks, a wealth manager in California, learned about the opportunity to sponsor a family on social media in September 2021, a month after the United States’ pullout from Afghanistan. Before she knew it, Ms. Brooks and her husband, Peter, had formed a sponsor circle with other members of their community in Walnut Creek, raised the requisite money and received training about their responsibilities as well as insight into coping with cultural differences and trauma.
They were paired up with an Afghan family, Abrahim and Fakhria Amirzad and their four children, who arrived in Walnut Creek on Dec. 30.
The sponsors secured temporary housing for the Amirzads, got the children vaccinated and enrolled in school and gave the couple driving lessons. A community member donated a minivan to accommodate the large family, which has since grown to five children.
Ms. Brooks marveled at how quickly the family had acclimated: The couple’s oldest child, Bibi Ayesha, 11, has joined the Girl Scouts. Mr. Amirzad, a nurse at a U.S. military hospital in Kabul, is taking a phlebotomy course, the first step toward achieving his goal of returning to his profession.
“We have received so much more than we gave,” said Ms. Brooks, 68, noting that the 90-day commitment had extended to more than a year because of the deep bond that formed between the family and her group.
“I would personally be willing to do it again,” she said. “This changes a family’s life forever.”
Mr. Amirzad said his family had thrived with the personalized attention.
“The sponsor circle has been by our side every step of the way,” he said. “Anything we needed, day or night, we knew that there were people to call and help us.”