So far in 2022, about 20,000 people have entered the United States through its traditional resettlement program. The numbers fall far short of the 125,000 refugees deemed eligible by the U.S. government for resettlement, even when the tens of thousands of Afghans and Ukrainians brought to the country through emergency programs are added.
However, in the coming months, the Biden administration is poised to pilot a private sponsorship program  that will enlist community groups and ordinary American citizens in resettlement efforts. It has the potential to forever change the way America resettles refugees and open a wider door for those who need to start a new life in the country.
This initiative could not arrive at a more urgent time, as the number of people who have been forced to flee their homes because of war, political unrest, and civil persecution in 2022 has topped 100 million, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. For non-profit groups like World Education Services (WES) , which helps international refugees and immigrants achieve their educational goals in their new home countries of the U.S. and Canada, this program represents a welcome new pathway to expand resettlement access to those most in need.
To understand the potential of this program and the role that everyday American citizens can play in guaranteeing its success, WENR sat down with Sarah Krause, executive director and co-founder of the Community Sponsorship Hub , which was established in 2021 to grow the role of local communities in the protection and welcome of forcibly displaced people. Shortly thereafter, as families were evacuated from Afghanistan in search of safety, CSH led a coalition of partners to rapidly design and implement the Sponsor Circle Program (SCP) for Afghans.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Why is private sponsorship of refugees a worthwhile effort?
Sponsorship has so many benefits. It gives people an opportunity to connect with a newcomer and to see the many talents that they bring to their new communities. It has also been proven to lead to enhanced integration outcomes for refugees, strengthening community connections and ultimately creating more welcoming communities. In return, refugees make substantial contributions to their new country including bringing in new skills, opening new markets, expanding current ones, creating employment, and filling empty employment niches. And, in time, sponsors can also help reunite refugees with their family members who are still overseas.
Do you expect the Biden administration’s private refugee sponsorship program to accelerate lagging refugee admissions in the United States?
There are significant opportunities around the private sponsorship pilot. First and foremost, I would say that the pilot can expand our capacity to welcome refugees in the United States, allowing communities that have not traditionally engaged in resettlement to welcome them. It also will enable us to identify more individuals who are in need of resettlement. With private sponsorship, individual communities will have the opportunity to identify a particular individual that they wish to welcome, such as an LGBTQ+ refugee, ultimately facilitating their access to protection and acceptance in the United States.
What measures are needed to make sure that the program is a success?
I think it’s really important that the U.S. government engage stakeholders as a kind of co-design process to engage people in shaping the program from the very beginning. And when we talk about stakeholders, that includes refugees, prospective sponsors, and private sponsor organizations. It is an incredible opportunity to allow more members of the American public to engage directly in welcoming refugees.
For this program to be successful, I believe we need for a variety of organizations, businesses, philanthropists, and higher education institutions to have the opportunity to play meaningful roles in it. We have to be really intentional about making certain that communities are aware of the opportunity and, even more importantly, that they have an opportunity to inform what it should look like. It’s going to be an iterative process. This is, of course, a pilot and we expect that it will change over time based on what we learn. We hope that stakeholders will have continued engagement in reviewing and refining the program.
Should we consider this program the beginning of a new era of refugee policy, and why?
I think this is going to be the most significant change to refugee resettlement in more than 40 years. In a way, it’s a return to our roots. We once had private sponsorship in the United States. This is an opportunity to once again enable communities to play a meaningful role in refugee resettlement and give them a sense of ownership of this work which they will hopefully protect if, God forbid, it should come under attack.
In Canada, a recent study found that more than one-quarter of Canada’s population had either sponsored a refugee or contributed to a sponsoring group. That widespread involvement has been attributed to a reaction to the rise in anti-refugee sentiment that Canadians saw happening around the world. I think we have the potential for that level of engagement in the United States. A real volunteer spirit exists here.
With many Americans believing that a recession is coming or already here, how can you convince people to support and sponsor refugees?
Oftentimes when folks are asked to contribute to an organization during difficult economic times, they’re hesitant. But if they’re asked to give to an individual, they’re far more likely to do it. When you’re asking them to respond to a particular human need, as opposed to giving a donation to an organization where you’re not certain ultimately how that donation will be used, they will. We’ve seen that time and again, for example with the Sponsor Circle program for Afghans , which has thrived during a time of economic challenge for many families across the United States.
We don’t know at this point how much money we will have to raise, but we expect private sponsor groups and philanthropists to contribute a reasonable amount. We also expect that communities will assest individuals arriving in the United States to provide access to the public benefits available to all refugees. We recently established a sponsor fund in partnership with the Accenture Foundation that provides small grants to sponsor circles that need some financial assistance either to qualify for sponsorship or to address an emergency need after families arrive in the United States. It’s our sincere hope that we can grow that fund to ensure that the financial component is not a barrier to sponsorship.
What should the relationship between a sponsor and a refugee look like? How should each of them approach it?
One thing we know is that the government intends to use a process of informed consent, which is something that was piloted with the Sponsor Circle Program for Afghans. This allowed the newcomer was still overseas the opportunity to opt into the program, elect to be served by a specific agency or sponsor. The other piece that is really important is training for the sponsors. With the private sponsorship pilot, as was the case with the Sponsor Circle Program, we anticipate that sponsors will need to complete a training program before getting certified and ultimately matched with an arriving family. This training includes guidance on expectations for sponsors’ boundaries. It imparts a lot of information about attitudes and behavior that will support a successful sponsor-newcomer relationship. There will also be training for newcomers to give them a grounding in how to establish a successful relationship with their sponsor.
We also anticipate that there will be safeguards in place so that if newcomers have concerns about their relationship with the sponsors, they can phone a hotline for immediate support. Ultimately what’s most critical is that the newcomer is able to integrate into the United States successfully, and that the sponsor supports them in that. The refugee is the one who should be driving that process and we want to make certain that the training reinforces that.
You have had a rich experience in supporting refugees. Can you share any lessons you have learned?
I started as a sponsorship developer more than 20 years ago. At the time, it was my job to go out and recruit religious congregations of different faiths to partner with our resettlement agency and welcome newly arriving refugees. I saw first-hand the impact that it had not only on the new arrivals but also on the communities that were welcoming them. It also helped to create connections between diverse faith groups that had not partnered together previously.
Communities have so much capacity to provide help and support. I also saw that play out with the Sponsor Circle Program for Afghans in the U.S., which drew on the best practices of Canada’s private sponsorship program. It enables groups of five people anywhere in the United States to come together to welcome refugees. We’ve seen that group-of-five model work with great success with that program. More than 600 Afghans were supported through the Sponsor Circle Program and welcomed into receiving communities, and more than 4,000 people have contributed to Sponsor Circles through the Emergency Response initiative. That was also a private pilot program. Now imagine what could be possible when we have a pilot program that is supported by the US government. I think we’re going to see an even bigger response.
What is your call to action for local communities as we approach the launch of this sponsorship program?
By way of encouragement, I would tell American communities that sponsorship is at times challenging but ultimately incredibly rewarding because of the relationships that are formed between community members and newcomers. I would want to make them aware of the opportunities that exist in that space and note that support is available to sponsors throughout the process. Those who choose to take this work on won’t be alone in getting started.
Another benefit is that they can inspire others in their communities to become sponsors themselves. It has a positive ripple effect. I personally would like to believe that it’s what we would want others to do for us if we were in a similar situation. We would want to be welcomed into a community in that way. My hope is that when Americans learn about this private sponsorship program, they’ll apply to sponsor a person as if they were helping a friend of a friend, and that it will help create more welcoming communities across the United States.