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Biden administration invites ordinary Americans to help settle refugees

Afghan refugee Abrahim Amirzad, whose family was sponsored by a California couple for resettlement, picks up three of his four children at a school in Walnut Creek, Calif., Wednesday. In a new program called “Welcome Corps,” private citizens will take on logistical and financial responsibility for helping refugees transition to life in the United States.RACHEL BUJALSKI/NYT

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, announced Thursday, marks the most significant reorientation of the US 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 US 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.

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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 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 US refugee program. It can also serve to bolster public support for refugee resettlement, which is important to advancing US foreign policy objectives, they said.

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“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, before 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 US 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.

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.

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“We hope it will become as widely known and engage as many Americans as the Peace Corps,” Valls Noyes said. “It will tap into the energy, expertise and resources of communities across the country and will strengthen them in the process.”

“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, CEO 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.

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.

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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.