Amidst the highest global numbers of refugees ever recorded, the Biden administration will now allow individual American citizens to sponsor refugees for resettlement in the United States. For refugees like the Rohingya, it’s a new lifeline. Here’s how it works.
In January, the US State Department announced the creation of the Welcome Corps, a new citizen-led pathway for refugee resettlement in the United States. For the first time in US history, the federal government will allow groups of private citizens to directly sponsor refugees for resettlement in their communities across the United States.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has hailed the Welcome Corps as “the boldest innovation in refugee resettlement in four decades.” Launched by the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, the Welcome Corps creates a new pipeline through which groups of five or more American citizens can directly sponsor refugees for resettlement.
The timing could not be more critical. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated last year that over 100 million people had been forcibly displaced from their homes, an all-time high. Over 10 million of those Persons of Concern are found in the Asia Pacific, including over 4 million refugees (persons forced to seek refuge from war, persecution, or disaster outside of their home countries).
The State Department had already begun to augment its humanitarian responses to major crises in the region, but the Welcome Corps may be a crucial step in expediting refugee resettlement. In the face of the ongoing crisis in Myanmar, for example, the Biden administration has announced the creation of a resettlement initiative for vulnerable Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, many of whom now reside in cramped and squalid conditions in the single largest refugee camp in the world. The resettlement initiative, coordinated with the Government of Bangladesh and the UNHCR, will admit Bangladesh-based Rohingya refugees into the United States through the US Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP), and the first groups of refugees have already been approved for resettlement in the United States.
The Welcome Corps offers a way to speed up that next step for resettlement. In the traditional system, once refugees have passed security vetting by the US government, they must wait to be resettled, housed, and supported through one of ten resettlement organizations with funding from the federal government in the United States. The entire process can take up to two years.
With the Welcome Corps, the State Department will expand its refugee process to line up everyday Americans to finance the resettlement of those fleeing persecution and violence abroad. The State Department hopes to enlist at least 10,000 Americans to sponsor 5,000 refugees for the first year of the program.
The move comes amidst a renewed focus from the Biden administration on US commitment to assisting displaced populations worldwide. The United States has been the world’s leader in refugee resettlement since the passage of the Refugee Act in 1980, and in fact resettled more refugees from 1980 to 2017 than every other country combined.
That posture changed under the Trump administration, which slashed refugee admissions to 33,000 in 2017 and to just 23,000 in 2018 – an even lower total than in Canada, a country with a population almost a tenth the population of the United States. By its last year in office, the Trump administration lowered that refugee admissions cap to 15,000, a historic low for the United States.
Since taking office in 2021, President Biden has sought to undo many of the previous administration’s policies towards refugees. With some cajoling from his political base, Biden boosted the ceiling on refugee admissions to 62,500 for Fiscal Year 2021 and has since raised that cap to 125,000 per year in 2022 and 2023.
However, lifting the cap on total US refugee admissions is only one piece of the puzzle. USRAP received just 25,400 refugees in 2022, the result of shuttered offices and systematic disruption of services under the Trump administration.
In part to combat these bottlenecks and administrative burdens, the Biden administration launched private sponsorship programs separate from the traditional resettlement system, streamlining admissions for those fleeing from high-profile crises in Afghanistan and Ukraine over the last year. Uniting for Ukraine and the Sponsor Circle Group now offer dedicated pipelines for private sponsorship of resettlement for Ukrainians and Afghans, moving alongside the standard process conducted by the US Refugee Assistance Program.
The State Department has planned the Welcome Corps to bolster admissions for refugees like the Rohingya, building on the success of those two private sponsor programs for Afghans and Ukrainians. Private sponsorship of refugees has a long history in the United States, and now the United States is following in the footsteps of successful private sponsorship programs run in Canada, Argentina, and Australia.
If successful, the Welcome Corps can become a viable alternative pathway for resettlement in the United States, boosting admissions numbers of those in crisis abroad. For the Rohingya in Bangladesh, and for millions of others seeking refuge around the world, the addition of private sponsorship for resettlement is a necessary step towards revitalizing the American refugee resettlement system.
Now You Can Sponsor Refugees Yourself – Here’s How
If you are interested in sponsoring refugees yourself, here is the step-by-step process below, and make sure to check out the Welcome Corps website for more details:
- Form a private sponsor group of at least five American adults (older than 18)
- Complete required training and pass a mandatory background check
- Create a Welcome Plan and raise at least $2,275 per refugee.
- Each approved “private sponsor group” will commit to aiding a refugee for at least 90 days, such as picking them up at the airport and helping secure housing and jobs.
Shane Goetz is a Young Professional with the East-West Center in Washington. He is a graduate student at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, focusing on international security and humanitarian assistance and disaster response (HA/DR).