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Biden administration plans private refugee sponsorship program

Ultimately, the program would aim to allow private citizens to identify refugees on their own and resettle them

Shir Agha Safi, 30, helps Sadye Katherine Scott-Hainchek, 36, center, a volunteer helping Afghan refugees fill out asylum paperwork in August in Des Moines, Iowa. Safi, a refugee who was an Afghan military commander who used to lead men into battle against insurgent and terrorists, started a nonprofit organization called Afghan Partners in Iowa that aims to train Afghan refugees who speak English to help fellow Afghan refugees with their needs and challenges.
Shir Agha Safi, 30, helps Sadye Katherine Scott-Hainchek, 36, center, a volunteer helping Afghan refugees fill out asylum paperwork in August in Des Moines, Iowa. Safi, a refugee who was an Afghan military commander who used to lead men into battle against insurgent and terrorists, started a nonprofit organization called Afghan Partners in Iowa that aims to train Afghan refugees who speak English to help fellow Afghan refugees with their needs and challenges. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)

The Biden administration is poised to launch a private refugee sponsorship program in the coming months, an effort that could accelerate lagging refugee admissions in the United States.

The program will enlist private organizations and groups of everyday Americans to sponsor and resettle refugees, resembling similar efforts undertaken in the past year to resettle Afghans and Ukrainians, the State Department told Congress earlier this month.

“The private sponsorship pilot program will incorporate lessons learned from these initiatives to grow opportunities for Americans to participate directly in welcoming refugees and facilitating their successful integration,” the department said in its annual report on refugee admissions.

An official launch is expected before the end of the calendar year. The program will aim to shore up a beleaguered refugee resettlement system that has yet to recover fully from the COVID-19 pandemic and Trump administration policy moves.

Sarah Krause, executive director of the Community Sponsorship Hub, which was established last year to pair private sponsors with Afghan evacuees, said it will expand opportunities for refugees themselves as well as broaden “our capacity to identify individuals that are in need of protection.”

“What we have seen is that the American public wants to respond,” Krause said. “They just need those opportunities, and we can give those to them.”

In fiscal 2021, the Biden administration resettled 11,411 refugees through the traditional resettlement program, short of its goal of 62,500. So far in fiscal 2022, which ends next Friday, the government has resettled 19,919 refugees through the traditional program despite a goal of 125,000.

However, tens of thousands of Afghans and Ukrainians brought to the U.S. through emergency programs are not counted in those totals.

Private identification

President Joe Biden, shortly after taking office, issued an executive order on refugee admissions that encouraged the United States to innovate by “capitalizing on community and private sponsorship of refugees.” In May of this year, the administration called for partnership proposals for a private refugee sponsorship pilot program.

The private refugee sponsorship program will effectively expand the “sponsor circle” system created last year when the U.S. was searching for ways to resettle roughly 80,000 Afghan evacuees.

Under the initial program, groups of Americans could apply to sponsor Afghans who had arrived in the U.S. under humanitarian parole and assist them with housing, medical care, finding employment and enrolling their children in school. Later, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Biden administration created similar opportunities for those wishing to help Ukrainians fleeing the war.

At first, advocates say, private refugee sponsorship would draw from the existing refugee pipeline, allowing American individuals and organizations to expedite resettlement for refugees who have already begun the process of moving to the United States.

But ultimately, the program aims to allow private citizens to identify refugees on their own and resettle them.

For example, a group of veterans could sponsor a translator with whom they had served in a conflict zone. An LGBTQ organization could sponsor an LGBTQ refugee fleeing an oppressive regime, or a college could sponsor a foreign student unable to continue their studies in the U.S. after political changes back home.

“You don’t have to know a refugee in need of protection to serve as a private sponsor,” Krause said. “It really is going to open up sponsorship to more parts of the United States, which ultimately, I think, is going to make for more receptive communities across the United States.”

Program benefits

The program’s advocates say a private refugee sponsorship program could play an important role in rebuilding the refugee resettlement system that was decimated under the Trump administration. When former President Donald Trump sought to reduce refugee admissions, many resettlement agencies closed offices and laid off staff — changes that have taken time to reverse.

They also say private sponsorship could shield refugee admissions overall from the whims of a future presidential administration. In Canada, which boasts a large private refugee resettlement system, refugee resettlement has withstood anti-refugee sentiment that gained influence in Europe and in the United States over the past decade.

“Clearly this administration is not resettling a high number of refugees, and I think private sector resources can help them achieve a higher number of overall resettlement,” said Matthew La Corte, government affairs manager for immigration policy at the Niskanen Center, a think tank. “But I think it’s also going to improve outcomes for refugees that are resettled in the U.S.”

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