In January 2023, the United States government launched a long-awaited program for the private sponsorship of refugees. The Welcome Corps program is intended to be a permanent part of the U.S.’s humanitarian immigration infrastructure, complementing the existing refugee resettlement that happens through a network of professional resettlement agencies and their affiliate offices around the country. The new program offers Americans around the country the opportunity to step up and engage in the resettlement process in a very tangible way: by forming sponsor groups and taking primary responsibility for welcoming a refugee into their communities. As such, it is one of the biggest innovations in U.S. refugee resettlement in decades.
Development of the Program
The International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) and others have long advocated for such a program, pointing to previous sponsorship programs that have existed in the United States. Sponsorships happened more informally throughout the 1970s, and the U.S. actually had a formal private sponsorship program from 1987 to 1995. Many of the 10 national resettlement agencies have and continue to utilize co-sponsorship, a model in which their local affiliate offices and a group of co-sponsors from the local community share responsibility for resettling a refugee assigned to that affiliate office. More recently, different forms of sponsorship have been used in specific crisis response programs, including the 2021 Sponsor Circle Program to relocate Afghan evacuees off of U.S. military bases and into communities around the country, and humanitarian parole programs like Uniting for Ukraine or the new Process for Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans.
In February 2021, President Biden issued an executive order directing the U.S. Department of State to explore the establishment of a private sponsorship program. Drawing on co-sponsorship models from around the country, recent sponsorship experiences domestically, and the many models of sponsorship abroad (including our Canadian neighbors’ program), the new program is adapted to the U.S. context, reflective of lessons learned and additive to existing resettlement; it will not be limited to any particular geography or crisis.
Key Program Elements
Private sponsor groups (PSGs) of at least five adults living in the community of welcome can apply to sponsor a refugee individual or family. These groups will complete training, undergo background checks, raise $2,375 per person they are welcoming, and complete a robust “welcome plan” detailing how core services and supports – like affordable housing, job training, school enrollment, English training, and healthcare – will be provided in their specific local context.
Private sponsor organizations (PSOs) are organizations that recruit, support, and oversee private sponsor groups as they prepare for, receive, and guide refugee newcomers arriving through the Welcome Corps. Organizations may be locally based or work in coordination with local partners or local networks. Most, if not all, PSGs will be matched with a PSO for support.
The Welcome Corps program has two phases. The first, “matching,” has already begun: PSGs can apply to be “matched” with a refugee who is already at advanced stages of screening for resettlement to the United States, has given their consent to be resettled through the Welcome Corps program, and will be ready to travel soon. Matching has started with cases from the East Africa and sub-Saharan Africa regions, but will eventually expand geographically. We will likely see the first arrivals in the next few months.
PSGs around the country, including in areas that have not traditionally seen significant resettlement, will take on the primary responsibility for welcoming their new neighbors – but their broader communities will also be involved, thus spreading the impact of this new opportunity to welcome. Refugee newcomers will be introduced to their sponsors’ neighbors, classmates, colleagues, and friends. The embrace of this extended network can bring social opportunities, potential jobs, opportunities to practice English skills, and a path to integrating into the community.
Civil Society-Government Partnerships
U.S. refugee resettlement has always been a public-private partnership, but that partnership is now expanding in a very significant way, from small sponsor groups to large organizations. To operationalize the program, the U.S. Department of State is funding a consortium of organizations led by the Community Sponsorship Hub (CSH). CSH, along with the International Rescue Committee, Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, International Refugee Assistance Project (as an unfunded partner), Church World Service / Refugee Welcome Collective, and Welcome.us, will mobilize sponsors, develop guidance and resources, vet and certify sponsor applications, match sponsors with refugees in Phase 1, and provide post-arrival support and oversight. The U.S. government will continue to develop and oversee the Welcome Corps program, as well as conduct the same overseas pre-arrival security and medical checks it does for all refugees resettled to the United States.
But the collaboration doesn’t stop there. Ultimately the Welcome Corps program envisions a whole-of-society approach for welcoming refugee newcomers, including a large variety of individuals and institutions: state- and local-level governments, smaller organizations with localized knowledge, bigger organizations with specialized expertise, community groups, faith groups, colleges and universities, and businesses.
Collectively, their knowledge, expertise, social networks, financial contributions, and other resources will expand opportunities for refugee newcomers and increase capacity for resettlement. With PSGs forming around the country to resettle refugees in addition to ongoing resettlement through the traditional Resettlement Agency model, the United States can offer more refugees a pathway to safety through resettlement.
What’s Next: “Identification” of Refugees by Sponsors
Later this year, the Welcome Corps program will expand to “Phase 2,” allowing “identification” – also known as “naming” in Canada’s private sponsorship program – of specific refugees by U.S. private sponsor groups.
Phase 2 is intended to have a broad global reach, and specific eligibility criteria or restrictions will be made available closer to the expansion. Based on information available at this time, no particular relationship will be required between sponsors and the refugee(s) they identify: for example, a PSG might identify extended family members, friends, or former colleagues. An American veteran might work with a sponsor group to identify a refugee he or she worked with while serving overseas; a member of a U.S.-based diaspora community might identify a refugee from their country of origin.
Identification will better harness the specialized expertise and opportunities of Americans and U.S. institutions. It is anticipated that colleges and universities, for instance, will be able to identify refugee students and offer them not only resettlement but also the opportunity to study in the United States on arrival and be welcomed by a campus community; LGBTQI+ organizations will be able to identify and welcome LGBTQI+ refugees into a community of care that understands their particular experiences and needs.
The major impact of the Welcome Corps program is twofold. First, by deepening the engagement of communities across the United States, the program can increase the number of refugees resettled to the United States overall, while broadening access to U.S. resettlement to new people and populations – underscoring the program’s exciting potential as a complementary addition to existing U.S. humanitarian pathways. Second, the program will also benefit the welcomers. The program will involve a broader swath of the American public than ever before in resettlement, transforming American communities across the country through the act of welcome.