By REBECCA SANTANA
WASHINGTON (AP) — A government program launched Thursday is giving American citizens the chance to play a role in resettling the thousands of refugees who arrive every year in the United States.
During the first year of the Welcome Corps, the State Department aims to line up 10,000 Americans who can help 5,000 refugees adjust to life in the United States.
“By tapping into the goodwill of American communities, the Welcome Corps will expand our country’s capacity to provide a warm welcome to higher numbers of refugees,” the department said in announcing the effort.
When refugees from around the world arrive in the U.S., they face a dramatically different way of life. To ease that transition, the department traditionally has worked with nonprofit groups that specialize in refugee issues. Under the new program, five or more Americans could form a group and help fill this role, as well.
They would apply to privately sponsor refugees to resettle in the U.S. and would be responsible for raising their own money to help the refugees over the first 90 days. Assistance would include everything from greeting refugees at the airport to finding them place to live and getting kids enrolled in school.
A consortium of nonprofits with expertise in refugee resettlement will help oversee the vetting and certification of people and groups who want to be private sponsors. They also will offer training so private sponsors understand what’s needed to help refugees adjusting to life in America. The consortium will be responsible for monitoring the program.
The program will roll out in two phases. First, private sponsors will be matched with refugees already approved for resettlement under the U.S. Refugee Assistance Program. That will start during the first half of 2023.
Later, private sponsors could identify refugees abroad they would like to help and then refer those people to the Refugee Assistance Program and assist them once they arrive in the U.S.
The program is different from a recent initiative that allows 30,000 people into the country a month from Nicaragua, Cuba, Haiti and Venezuela. They also need a sponsor but are being admitted to the U.S. under a humanitarian parole designation that lasts two years and offers no path to becoming permanent residents or citizens.
Under the refugee program, people fleeing violence or persecution can come to the U.S. and stay permanently. Since the Refugee Act was passed in 1980 the U.S. has admitted a little over 3 million refugees.
The Welcome Corps program comes on the heels of a similar, smaller scale endeavor under which Americans were able to sponsor Afghans or Ukrainians. That program launched in October 2021 and has helped just over 800 people coming to America through a network of 230 certified sponsor circles that included a total of about 5,000 people.
Sasha Chanoff, founder and chief executive of Boston-based RefugePoint, which supports Afghan refugees, said Canada has long used a similar model to help resettle refugees. Chanoff said the sponsor circle program capitalizes on the huge amount of goodwill among Americans to sponsor refugees, something that crosses political divides.
“This represents perhaps a unique opportunity in our history — certainly in our recent history — to really open up space for Americans to protect lives by sponsoring a family,” he said. “We’ve seen the incredible interest among the American public — Republicans, Democrats, liberals, conservatives, veterans, so many others across the political spectrum.”
President Joe Biden pledged in a 2021 executive order to restore the U.S. as the world’s haven and he called for private sponsorship of refugees. Under President Donald Trump, the U.S. had largely rolled back the refugee program.
But Thursday’s announcement comes as the U.S. is woefully off track if it hopes to meet Biden’s goal of 125,000 refugees admitted into the U.S. during the 2023 budget year. According to State Department data, the U.S. has admitted just 6,750 refugees to the country through December — three months into the fiscal year.
Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service commended the Biden administration’s “forward-thinking” program which has “potential to strengthen ties between refugees and the communities they will call home.” But Vignarajah also noted the low number of refugee admissions. The group is a national nonprofit that helps refugees, asylum seekers, and other immigrants.
“The Biden administration must prioritize the streamlining of refugee admissions, which remain regrettably low this fiscal year. 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,” Vignarajah said in a statement.
Assistant Secretary of State Julieta Valles Noyes told reporters Thursday that the agency responsible for interviewing refugees overseas had conducted over 20,000 interviews during the first quarter of the year and that she was “confident” that the numbers of refugees arriving in the months ahead would increase.