WASHINGTON — The State Department is setting up a new program aimed at giving ordinary Americans the chance to help resettle refugees in the United States — and it's borrowing a page from Canada's immigration playbook to do it.
The program, dubbed the Welcome Corps, aims to identify 10,000 U.S. sponsors for roughly 5,000 would-be newcomers this year in what State and the Department of Health and Human Services call "the boldest innovation in refugee resettlement in four decades."
And Canada's long-standing private sponsorship model played a key role in its design, said Julieta Valls Noyes, State's assistant secretary in the bureau of population, refugees and migration.
"In establishing the Welcome Corps, the United States sought to build on best practices on refugee private sponsorship around the world, including the successful private sponsorship program that Canada has operated for more than four decades," Noyes said in a statement.
"We are grateful to the government of Canada for sharing details about their program with us as we were designing the Welcome Corps and appreciate their support in allowing us to learn from their program."
Secretary of State Antony Blinken foreshadowed the plan when he visited Canada last fall, citing in particular the country's role in helping to resettle people displaced by the ongoing turmoil in Ukraine and the fall of the Afghanistan government in 2021.
"It's quite remarkable and something that speaks volumes for Canada around the world," Blinken said. "We are going to soon pilot a program in the United States … inspired by what Canada has done, where American communities are eager to play a similar role."
The program will roll out in two phases over the course of 2023, officials say: the first step will be to match up would-be private sponsors with refugees whose resettlement bids have already been approved under the existing U.S. system.
By mid-year, officials expect private sponsors will be able to hand-pick refugees they want to refer to the admissions program for resettlement, providing supports for those they have identified once they've been approved.
Canada resettled some 20,400 refugees in 2021, more than anywhere else in the world, making it a "global leader in refugee resettlement and integration," said Stuart Isherwood, a spokesman for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.
The private system, comprising two streams — the Private Sponsorship of Refugees program and the Blended Visa Office-Referred program, which halves the sponsorship cost with the federal government — "enables Canada to welcome more refugees each year than the government could resettle alone," Isherwood said.
Indeed, the two private streams represent more than half — roughly 54 per cent — of Canada's projected 2023 intake, said Michael Casasola, a senior resettlement officer in Ottawa with the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.
Privately sponsored refugees typically integrate into the community more quickly than those receiving only government help, making things easier as well as helping to foster community buy-in, he added.
"In the long term, the other refugees catch up," Casasola said.
"But in the short term, the civil society engagement — the social capital — that the sponsors provide for the refugee plays a really meaningful role in terms of how privately sponsored refugees get going when they first come to Canada."
Refugee resettlement in the U.S. has primarily been a public-policy matter since 1980, when the newly passed Refugee Act established an admission program to meet annual federal quotas, administered by State with the help of non-profit resettlement agencies.
President Joe Biden reopened the door to private sponsorship with an executive order in February 2021, just months before a chaotic U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan that spring precipitated the fall of the Afghan government in August.
Since then, Russia's war in Ukraine has also spurred a rapid exodus of refugees from eastern Europe, while the challenges posed at the U.S.-Mexico border by a steady tide of migrants from Latin America and elsewhere are a persistent talking point on Capitol Hill.
The program will be guided by a consortium of non-profit groups with expertise in refugee resettlement, including Church World Service, Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services and the International Refugee Assistance Project.
Community organizations will also be invited to help mobilize and support private sponsors.
"It's better late than ever, in terms of adapting this Canadian innovation that's been around for quite some time," said Mark Hetfield, president and chief executive of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, one of the groups on that latter list.
The international humanitarian aid organization, which bills itself as the world's oldest refugee agency, embraces the idea of sponsorship as a way to leverage the significant resources and desire to provide support that exists in the private sector.
"We've always been sad that there are Jewish communities, congregations, groups all over the country who want to welcome refugees, but we were not able to work with them because we only have 22 sites," Hetfield said.
"This really allows us to welcome refugees wherever there's a congregation or a group that wants to welcome refugees. So from that perspective, we're very excited about it."
But organizations like Hetfield's and others have for years been engaged helping to locate private sponsors for refugees in the U.S., particularly before 1980, when the Refugee Act enabled Congress and the White House to establish annual quotas.
"It does feel like what's old is new again," said Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, who described the Welcome Corps as a "valuable step" but took pains to temper expectations.
"Private sponsorship will likely remain a smaller part of refugee resettlement. When you compare it to the work of the resettlement agencies, the grassroots nature of the program is obviously admirable, but it does take some time to scale."
Only one per cent of the roughly 80,000 Afghan refugees who were evacuated to the U.S. following the return of the Taliban were resettled through a private-sponsorship pilot project, Vignarajah said.
And it's no less important to ensure that would-be sponsors are vetted just as carefully as refugees, to ensure people don't end up in the clutches of human traffickers, she added.
"Our hope is that while it's wonderful to announce these pilot programs, we get to the crux of the concern right now, which is how do we get more refugees processed and admitted to come to the U.S. in the first place," Vignarajah said.
"Otherwise, there's the risk that sponsors will come forward and want to be involved, and there will be very few families to actually support."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 23, 2023.
James McCarten, The Canadian Press