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Immigration

Biden Administration Announces New Private Refugee Sponsorship Program

The program differs in several ways from Uniting for Ukraine and other previous private migration sponsorship policies.

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Earlier today, the Biden Administration announced a private refugee sponsorship program, under which ordinary private citizens can band together and sponsor refugees for entry into the United States. This new program may be confused with  previous private migration sponsorship policies like Uniting for Ukraine and its extension to migrants from four Latin American nations. The new program broader than these previous initiatives  in some ways, but narrower in others. It's a useful, but so far limited, innovation.

CBS has a helpful description of the new policy:

The Biden administration initiative, called Welcome Corps, could pave the way for a seismic shift in U.S. refugee policy, as most refugees brought to the U.S. for the past decades have been resettled by nine nonprofit organizations that receive federal funding.

Under the program, modeled after a long-standing system in Canada, groups of at least five U.S.-based individuals could have the opportunity to sponsor refugees if they raise $2,275 per refugee, pass background checks and submit a plan about how they will assist the newcomers.

Approved private sponsors will play the role of traditional resettlement agencies for at least 90 days after a refugee's arrival, helping the newcomers access housing and other basic necessities, such as food, medical services, education and public benefits for which they qualify.

During the first phase of the program, State Department officials will match approved sponsors with refugees overseas who already have been cleared to come to the U.S. In mid-2023, officials plan to allow prospective sponsors to identify refugees abroad whom they wish to assist.

The State Department fact sheet on the the Welcome Corps policy has more details, as does Reason immigration writer Fiona Harrigan. There is also a new website on which groups can apply to become sponsors.

As CBS notes, Welcome Corps may turn out to be a major improvement over the slow and sclerotic traditional refugee admissions system, under which only 25,000 people entered the US in fiscal year 2022.  Immigration experts, myself included, have long advocated that the US adopt a private sponsorship system modeled in part on the successful Canadian program.

Unlike Uniting for Ukraine and its extensions, Welcome Corps applies to people form all over the world, not just five specific countries. In addition, successful applicants are given refugee status, which includes a right of permanent residency in the US. By contrast, beneficiaries of Uniting for Ukraine and its Latin American analogues currently only get residency and work permits for two years. And that status could potentially be revoked at the discretion of the president (though he could also extend it). Refugee status, once granted, is generally not subject to unilateral revocation by the executive.

But there are also ways in which Welcome Corps is far more limited than Uniting for Ukraine and other similar policies. The latter allow anyone from the designated countries to gain admission by getting a sponsor. By contrast, Welcome Corps only applies to people who can meet the narrow legal definition of "refugee," which includes only those facing persecution  "on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion." This definition excludes a vast range of people threatened by war, violence, and oppression of other kinds.

While Uniting for Ukraine allows sponsorship by individuals, Welcome Corps limits it to groups of five or more. This restriction makes little sense. If a group of four or fewer people can come up with the necessary funds, why not let them participate?

In addition, unlike Uniting for Ukraine, the Welcome Corps pilot program is limited to refugees who have already been vetted and approved by the US government under the existing refugee approval system, a process that can take years. Sponsors, it appears, will not be able to choose which refugees they wish to sponsor, but will be matched with people assigned to them. However, the State Department plans to expand the program later this year, to allow potential private sponsors to recommend new applicants for the pipeline:

In the second phase of the program, which will launch in mid-2023, private sponsors will be able to identify refugees to refer to the USRAP for resettlement and support the refugees they have identified. Further details on the second phase of the program will be forthcoming.

It is not clear whether refugees referred in this second phase will still have to go though the cumbersome vetting system. If the answer is "yes," it will significantly reduce the value of Welcome Corps. One of the greatest virtues of Uniting for Ukraine is the rapid speed of processing, which allows migrants to escape danger and start their new lives within just a few weeks of beginning the application process. Welcome Corps doesn't seem to be like that—at least not so far.

In sum, Welcome Corps is a useful initiative. But it also has significant limitations, albeit some of them may be loosened when the second phase kicks in.

In the meantime, Uniting for Ukraine and its extension to four Latin American countries also continue to operate.

Despite their limitations, the combined impact of the Biden Administration's private sponsorship initiatives is already very significant. Hopefully, it will grow over time, as the programs continue to expand.

If so, these policies will enable many more people to escape oppression, find freedom and opportunity in the US, and contribute to American innovation and economic growth, as immigrants have long disproportionately done. Opening our doors to more people fleeing oppression and injustice also strengthens America's position in the international war of ideas against hostile authoritarian regimes, such as those of Russia and China.