America likes to tell a certain story about itself: It’s a safe haven, a place of refuge for the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. It’s a story that history shows hasn’t always been true. But thankfully, it just got easier for Americans to take matters into their own hands and turn that aspiration into a reality.
The Biden administration on January 19 launched the Welcome Corps, a new program that will allow groups of Americans to directly sponsor refugees to resettle in their communities.
Whereas recent programs have focused on bringing over people from specific places — Afghanistan, Ukraine, Venezuela — this program makes it possible for private citizens to resettle people from any place in the world, so long as they are refugees as defined by the US Refugee Act.
Under the Welcome Corps program, you and a few of your friends can pool together funds to provide an immigration pathway that allows vulnerable people who may not otherwise be able to immigrate the ability to rebuild their lives in the US. Forming a private sponsor group involves bringing together at least five adults in your area and collectively raising $2,275 for each person you want to resettle in your community. With that money, sponsors commit to helping them through the first three months there, which can include securing and furnishing housing, stocking the pantry with food, supporting job hunts, and registering kids for school.
It’s a powerful way to improve life for the newcomers, granting them protection from persecution or violence in their country of origin, plus the chance to access health care, education, and socioeconomic opportunities. It can also improve life for everyone who’ll be in the newcomers’ orbit, including you and your neighbors. Research suggests welcoming refugees will likely benefit your community as a whole, for example by opening new businesses that revitalize neighborhoods. In Canada, a similar private sponsorship program has proven immensely popular and successful over the past decade.
But you might be thinking: Why should it fall to private citizens to fork over the cash, time, and energy to resettle refugees? Shouldn’t that be the government’s job?
One thing to note is that private citizens have long been part of the resettlement process in some form or other — for example, through co-sponsorships between faith-based groups (like churches, synagogues, or mosques) and the government infrastructure. And by directly sponsoring refugees, citizens can offer them more social support than the government could alone, in part because they’re focused on one specific refugee or refugee family, rather than splitting their focus among thousands, as is inevitably the case with government agencies.
“When refugees have to flee their home country, they lose social networks and social capital,” said Elizabeth Foydel, the private sponsorship program director at the nonprofit International Refugee Assistance Project, one of many groups that pushed for the Welcome Corps. “It’s a really hard aspect of coming to a new place. But if you’re being sponsored by a private sponsor group, you get the benefit of tapping into all their social connections and maybe integrate into the fabric of the community more easily.”
Still, it’s a fair point: This is the government’s job. That’s why the advocacy groups that pushed for the Welcome Corps program insisted that any refugees who come to the US via private sponsorship should be in addition to the number of traditional, government-assisted resettlement cases.
The State Department has signaled that it agrees. This means that by sponsoring a refugee, you can play a role in allowing the US to take in more refugees overall. It really is additive.
And unlike prior programs for Afghans or Ukrainians, which were temporary, ad hoc responses to crises, the Welcome Corps is intended to be a permanent fixture. The hope is that it’ll complement the traditional resettlement process, which has been struggling for years.
Why the US has been failing refugees
Biden’s official target for fiscal year 2022 was to resettle 125,000 refugees, an ambitious goal that was set to respond to growing global displacement. Instead, it resettled around 25,400.
“We very much have a national mythos around being a safe haven and being a nation of immigrants,” Foydel told me. “And for a long time, the US was the top country in terms of resettlement. But I think it’s definitely fair to say that we’ve been falling short over the past several years. You see a pretty significant decline overall.”
Just look at this chart. From a high in 1980, when the US Refugee Act was signed into law, the number of admitted refugees has generally declined.
If you look back 40 years ago or so, you can see that refugee resettlement used to be a bipartisan issue. There are comparable numbers in a George W. Bush year and in a Barack Obama year, for example. But over the past couple of decades, we’ve seen pretty extreme politicization of what’s supposed to be a core part of the American narrative, one that ultimately began to weigh on refugee numbers.
The 9/11 attacks were a major inflection point, Foydel explained. After that, it became more common to view refugees — especially those from the Middle East — as possible security threats. The resulting security vetting process became so incredibly rigorous as to function as a bottleneck.
Then came the rise in nativist discourse during the Trump presidency. The Trump administration slashed refugee admissions to a historic low of 15,000. Since the funding of refugee agencies is tied to the refugee cap, agencies were forced to lay off staff and shutter offices. Travel restrictions associated with the Covid-19 pandemic also played a role in slowing down refugee resettlement. Canada — which has little more than a tenth of the US population — overtook America as the global leader in resettlement.
Under Biden, the US has been trying to rebuild the resettlement infrastructure, though arguably too slowly. The agencies have been in the undesirable position of having to rebuild even while they try to serve thousands of Afghans, Ukrainians, and others with the scant resources they currently have.
That’s where the Welcome Corps comes in.
“It’s very much our hope that that’ll significantly increase capacity,” Foydel told me. “What’s exciting about the private sponsorship program is that it can be a permanent, sustainable mechanism for Americans.”
Here’s how to form a private sponsor circle, in 6 steps
The private sponsorship program will have two streams. One is identification: If a group of sponsors has someone particular in mind — for example, someone they used to work with abroad — they can nominate that person for resettlement. (One example might be a former foreign correspondent posted for a stint in Bangladesh, who wants to sponsor someone they worked with there as a refugee.) The other is matching: If a group doesn’t have a particular person in mind, they will be matched with someone who is already being processed, helping that person to get out of a very lengthy pipeline that can otherwise take years to traverse.
For now, prospective sponsors are limited to the matching stream; later this year, the identification stream will open up.
Remember, even if the US government does somehow manage to meet its admissions target for fiscal year 2023 — which is, once again, 125,000 refugees — advocates’ expectation is that private sponsorship would be able to bring in thousands more above and beyond that.
Here’s how you can help achieve that.
1) Form a group of five or more adults. If you’re excited about this program, you can reach out to four friends to start a conversation. (You can email them this page or even this article to get the conversation going.)
2) Have each group member complete a mandatory background check. This is a quick online process checking whether you have a criminal record.
3) Have one group member complete an online course. This gives you some tips on how to ensure your sponsor circle will be skillful and successful.
4) Fill out a welcome plan. You’ll want to devote at least a day to this since it requires you to research the resources available in your community for needs like job and language training. (Starting February 1, you can get help with creating your welcome plan at official support sessions held every Wednesday at 7:30 pm ET.) You also need to sign a simple commitment form.
5) Fundraise. You’ll need bank records or other proof showing that you’ve got $2,275 per newcomer you hope to welcome. Here’s a fundraising guide.
6) Fill out the application form. Once you’ve done steps 1-5, this will only take 10 minutes.
That’s it! If your group is motivated, you can probably complete this process over a couple of weeks of intermittent work. Once you submit the application, it’ll be a few weeks until you hear back. If your application is approved, the sponsored refugees will arrive one to two months later. You can welcome them into your community, and play a small role in helping America live up to its vision of itself.