Blog post by Janine Prantl and Stephen Yale-Loehr*

On January 19, the U.S. State Department announced the launch of Welcome Corps, a new private refugee sponsorship pilot program. Under Welcome Corps, groups of at least five individuals and community organizations can sponsor refugees to the United States. The State Department’s announcement is a good start, but the pilot should be improved in several ways.

Traditionally, the United States admits more refugees through resettlement than any other country. But U.S. refugee admissions suffered severe cuts under former President Trump, and the system has not come back to its pace. Of the 125,000 refugee admissions target last year, only 20% (25,400) refugees actually arrived.

It takes a long time for refugees to make it through the current U.S. resettlement system. First, the U.S. government must identify potential refugees based on their particular vulnerability or U.S. ties. Next, they must undergo multiple interviews and security and medical checks. On average, refugees face delays of five years or longer before arriving in the United States.

The U.S. government works with designated refugee resettlement agencies to place refugees in selected locations around the country. But these agencies have been struggling to fulfill their duties because of limited resources.

Community-based refugee sponsorship programs in Canada and other countries have shown that such sponsorships benefit both refugees and the receiving communities. Americans are eager to welcome newcomers as well. For example, two volunteers in Seattle drummed up friends and neighbors to sponsor Afghan and Ukrainian families through the Sponsor Circles program. Despite various obstacles, the Seattle sponsor groups succeeded in assisting these families adjust to life in the United States.

Welcome Corps requires sponsor groups to support refugees for 90 days and raise at least $2,275 in cash and in-kind contributions per refugee. 90 days are comparably short. In Canada and other countries, sponsor groups support refugees for one year or even longer. This time permits refugees to build relationships with their sponsors and to establish self-reliance.

Recent U.S. initiatives to help vulnerable populations have been limited to Afghans, Ukrainians, and Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans. Beneficiaries of these special programs, which differ from the normal refugee process, only receive temporary residence for two years, and the continuance of these programs depends on executive discretion.

By contrast, Welcome Corps opens private sponsorships for refugees from around the world, and a direct pathway to permanent residence and citizenship. In the first year of Welcome Corps, the State Department aims to admit 5,000 privately sponsored refugees “primarily . . . from countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.” These admissions should not only target a specific region or countries. The United States is bound by international anti-discrimination law. International human rights bodies and courts have accepted distinctions on grounds such as nationality only if there are very weighty reasons. Therefore, the administration should keep the pilot open to refugees from all over the world.

Welcome Corps will include a matching component whereby individuals who already have access to the U.S. refugee program are paired up with suitable U.S. sponsors, and an identification component where sponsors will be able to identify and nominate refugee beneficiaries. However, because of current processing backlogs, the pilot starts with just the matching component.

In Canada, empowering sponsors to nominate refugee beneficiaries has mobilized sponsors, diversified selection priorities, and improved the outcomes of the integration process. The U.S. government should reduce its refugee processing backlog so that sponsors can identify, nominate, and welcome beneficiaries quickly. The International Refugee Assistance Project has suggested the use of video technology for interviews, innovative staffing models, such as matching officers with applicant interviews based on experience and case complexity, and elimination of unnecessary or duplicative steps. Tests of 30-day streamlined visa processing for Afghans in Doha could be expanded and serve as a role model.

Canada and several other countries have successfully implemented community-based refugee sponsorships in addition to government-sponsored resettlements. Conversely, the admissions through Welcome Corps will count towards the refugee quota for fiscal year 2023. A senior official highlighted after the launch of Welcome Corps that “[t]his program . . . is one of the aspects of getting to the President’s target.” The private refugee sponsorships can contribute to fill unused slots of the U.S. refugee admission target. However, U.S. admission ceilings have varied a lot over the years. To increase and stabilize resettlement capacity, U.S. private refugee sponsorships should eventually become additional to the government-run refugee system.

Welcome Corps does not fully realize the potential of private refugee sponsorships. But if the State Department develops its pilot program based on lessons from other countries, U.S. private refugee sponsorships can succeed. Private sponsorships will positively impact the economic and social well-being of refugees. More importantly, they will also change false narratives because Americans will directly witness the mutual benefits of immigration.

* Janine Prantl is an immigration postdoctoral associate in the Cornell Law School Immigration Law and Policy Research Program. Stephen Yale-Loehr is Professor of Immigration Law Practice at Cornell Law School.

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