The Biden administration announced a new effort Thursday to recruit private citizens to sponsor new refugees seeking to come to the U.S.
The State Department said its Welcome Corps will allow sponsorships for up to 5,000 people. The volunteers would have to promise financial support, help signing up for schools and services, and other assistance during their first 90 days in the country.
In the first stage, the government would match willing sponsors with refugees flagged by the U.N. Eventually the administration hopes to have citizens recommend potential refugees, too.
“By launching the Welcome Corps, we build on a proud tradition of providing refuge and demonstrate the spirit and generosity of the American people as we commit to welcoming refugees in need of our support,” said Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
The project marks a new chapter in U.S. policy, seeking to expand average Americans’ buy-in on a critical humanitarian part of the U.S. immigration system.
Officials said the program grew out of experiences with Afghans, Ukrainians and migrants at the southern border, who have placed burdens on the country but also spurred an extraordinary outpouring of assistance.
Refugees are those who apply for protection from outside the U.S.
The president sets a cap each year on how many can be admitted. That figure was trimmed to just 18,000 in the final year under former President Donald Trump, but President Biden has set ambitious goals, including a cap of 125,000 this year.
Most refugees to reach the U.S. are first screened by the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration. They are vetted by the U.S. and then farmed out to a network of nongovernmental organizations such as the International Rescue Committee, Church World Service, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Those NGOs, which receive federal funding for their assistance, have been severely taxed by the massive numbers of migrants that have arrived at the southern border and through other avenues during the Biden administration.
The new program announced Thursday would allow private citizens to provide similar assistance. Volunteers can pool together to sponsor a single refugee.
They would need to raise $2,275 per refugee, with the money going to immediate needs such as new clothes, furniture or a security deposit on housing.
The private sponsors are also responsible for assisting new refugees with securing essential documentation, transportation and employment, setting up benefits and enrolling school-aged children in school.
Sponsors will be required to submit a detailed welcome plan before being approved by the State Department.
The length of sponsorship under the new program lasts 90 days. Refugees have access to some federal benefit programs as well.
The Biden administration has tested private sponsorship in a program announced last year to bring in Ukrainians fleeing the war in their country, and in a program last fall to welcome Venezuelans who otherwise might have shown up at the border as illegal immigrants.
Those migrants were brought in under Homeland Security’s “parole” powers rather than the refugee program, which is a joint operation between Homeland Security and the State Department.
Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service commended the Biden administration for taking a “forward-thinking approach to leveraging the generosity of the American spirit.”
“We are hopeful that this pilot will be thoughtfully implemented to make certain that sponsors are sufficiently equipped with the necessary resources and know-how to ensure the best possible outcomes for refugee families in their care,” she said.
Ms. Vignarajah noted, however, that resettlement efforts have not been the primary barrier for the Biden administration in reaching its refugee admissions targets over the past two years.
“The Biden administration must prioritize the streamlining of refugee admissions, which remain regrettably low this fiscal year,” she said. “Without urgent action to increase efficiency, it risks letting the compassion of individual sponsors and the expertise of professional refugee resettlement organizations go to waste.”