On Monday, the U.S. State Department announced that it would launch a private sponsorship program for evacuated Afghans.
Under the Sponsor Circle Program, private citizens will be able to help financially support and resettle evacuated Afghans in new communities across the country. Groups of at least five adults may apply to become sponsors. If they pass background checks, they then commit to raising enough money to support the designated family for up to 90 days. Once approved, groups are responsible for helping Afghans find housing, enroll in schools, and identify medical services.
Previously, nine large refugee agencies coordinated the majority of resettlement through local offices, giving refugees a landing pad and community connections wherever they were sent. But over 100 of those locations closed during the historically low refugee intake under the Trump administration, meaning that options for resettlement are now geographically limited. As a remedy to this capacity issue, the State Department says the Sponsor Circle Program "expands the capacity to resettle arriving Afghans, complementing the work of the State Department's non-profit resettlement agency partners." This dispersed approach will help prevent the clustering that would have occurred if they were only resettled near local offices or forced to stay on military bases.
Resettlement for Afghans thus far has been slow-going. Since August 17, agencies had resettled 5,800 evacuees, while 55,000 are still on military sites, according to Axios. Thousands more may still come to the U.S. as evacuations continue, creating a valuable space for private citizens to assist with resettlement efforts.
"This program showcases the powerful role that individuals can play in coming together to welcome and integrate Afghans into American society, reflecting our spirit of goodwill and generosity," said the State Department in a press release.
The new sponsorship program "centers communities at the heart of the resettlement process," says Matthew La Corte, government affairs manager for immigration policy at the Niskanen Center. "This will give Afghans an immediate support network to help them transition into their new neighborhood."
Other countries have implemented private refugee sponsorship programs to great success, both in terms of community integration and reducing the government's financial burden. In Canada since 2013, more refugees have arrived under the country's private program than through the government pathway. A 2007 analysis found that privately sponsored refugees used far less welfare and reported greater satisfaction with their lives in Canada than their government-sponsored counterparts. Argentina, Australia, France, Germany, and several other countries have implemented or committed to similar initiatives.
"Studies in Canada show that privately sponsored refugees achieve faster and higher-paying employment than government-sponsored refugees," says La Corte. "In the U.S. context, we'd expect that sponsors would expand the social networks of refugees upon arrival, increasing their access to employment opportunities and improving language skills." Since governments do not have the same incentives as private citizens who are responsible for the success of refugees, the latter form of resettlement prioritizes immigrant self-sufficiency.
Private refugee sponsorship also forges deeper bonds between native-born Americans and their new neighbors, according to immigration advocates. "Even those who aren't directly involved in sponsorship often become invested when somebody they know does," says Sam Peak, an immigration policy analyst at Americans for Prosperity. "The mere act of donating a crib to the refugee family down the street can be enough to feel a stake in your new neighbor's success."
In addition to the initiative for Afghans, the State Department plans to unroll a broader private refugee sponsorship program in 2022. That program is poised to include a "naming" step (called "identification" in the State Department's proposal), through which sponsors can identify specific people overseas they would like to assist. The Afghan program as it currently stands does not allow for naming.
"Naming would incentivize community members to step forward to name specific family members overseas, veterans sponsoring the interpreters they worked with, or colleges and universities sponsoring select students," says La Corte. "The inclusion of naming would be one of the most transformative policy proposals in the refugee resettlement arena in the last few decades."
While Americans will have to wait to sponsor specific migrants from overseas, the Afghan program will give them the opportunity to welcome and support their new neighbors, capitalizing on local knowledge and turning resettlement into a bottom-up process.
"All of it has global implications because it gives local people a voice in telling the world what kind of values America stands for," says Peak.