A National Experiment in Refugee Resettlement

The Biden Administration’s Welcome Corps will allow Americans to sponsor newcomers to their home towns—and will test how exposure to refugees changes people’s lives.
Illustration of a refugee and her baby approaching a home with a welcome mat that double for a stack of money.
Illustration by Jon Krause

In January, the State Department announced the launch of a program called the Welcome Corps, proclaiming it to be the “boldest innovation in refugee resettlement in four decades.” Under the plan, groups of five or more American citizens or permanent residents can apply to privately sponsor the resettlement of refugees. These groups will raise the required money—at least two thousand two hundred and seventy-five dollars per refugee—to place refugees in local communities and will help them find housing, identify job opportunities, and enroll children in schools. The first refugees under the new program will arrive in April. Private sponsorship is not an entirely new idea, but the Biden Administration has good reasons, both compelling and lamentable, to promote the Welcome Corps now.

Citizens have played a role in refugee resettlement for a long time. Under the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, hundreds of thousands of Europeans—including Catholics, Protestants, and Jews from Poland, Germany, Latvia, and the U.S.S.R.—resettled in the United States. After the Cuban Revolution, Cuban parents sent more than fourteen thousand children to states across the country. In the nineteen-seventies, around a hundred and thirty thousand Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian refugees were resettled in the United States under the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1975. In the nineteen-eighties, participants in the sanctuary movement helped resettle a large number of Central Americans fleeing civil wars—surreptitiously, as the Reagan Administration opposed their efforts. Since the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980, the U.S. has admitted more than three million refugees. The government sets caps on the number of refugees who can enter the country and provides substantial funding, but receives assistance from non-governmental organizations, many of them faith-based.

Until the launch of the Welcome Corps, last month, any private citizen who wanted to help resettle a refugee had to work with one of a small number of resettlement agencies—such as Church World Services, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and the World Relief Corporation—with limited reach and capacity. Resettlement agencies work only in particular communities, meaning that refugees haven’t been able to live in all the places they might be welcomed. Moreover, because of staffing challenges, the agencies haven’t been able to keep up with demand. The Welcome Corps will not replace them; instead, it will provide an additional avenue for Americans to participate in resettlement, helping to place refugees in areas of the country where resettlement agencies don’t work, and shift some of the expense to private citizens.

Even before Joe Biden became President, he said that he wanted to change how the United States resettled refugees, creating more options for faith- and local-community involvement. In office, he has raised the cap on refugees from eighteen thousand per year (the low ceiling imposed by President Trump in 2020) to a hundred and twenty-five thousand (considerably higher than the seventy thousand to eighty-five thousand refugees admitted per year under President Obama). But the issue became urgent after the U.S. military completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan, in August, 2021, and an estimated 1.3 million Afghans fled to neighboring countries. Some of them had worked with the United States and were seen by the new Taliban government as traitors. After Russia invaded Ukraine, in February, 2022, 5.4 million Ukrainians left home. By mid-2022, according to U.N.H.C.R. estimates, there were a record hundred and three million forcibly displaced people around the world, and more than thirty-two million were refugees.

In response to the situations in Afghanistan and Ukraine, U.S. government agencies launched the Sponsor Circle Program, to resettle Afghans, and Uniting for Ukraine, to resettle Ukrainians. Tens of thousands of Americans applied to participate, giving the Biden Administration confidence that a program such as the Welcome Corps could be successful. Cecilia Muñoz, a co-founder of Welcome.US, a nonprofit that’s helping with the rollout of the Welcome Corps, said that the way Americans have welcomed Ukrainian and Afghan newcomers helped make a case for the program. “The events of the last two years have really demonstrated that the theory of the case is correct,” she said. “Americans of all walks of life are enthusiastic about standing up and helping with resettlement. It’s extraordinary. It’s some of the most hopeful work I know.”

In the over-all context of the worldwide refugee crisis, and even in the context of how the United States is responding to it, the number of refugees who will be afforded relief from the Welcome Corps will be minuscule. The government hopes that, in the program’s first year, ten thousand Americans will sponsor five thousand refugees. The Welcome Corps will also do nothing about the migration crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, because it currently limits participation to screened and vetted refugees living overseas.

Still, the Welcome Corps might relieve some political pressure from President Biden, by signalling that some good can be done on immigration despite an intransigent Republican caucus. The program is, in this sense, an inverted yet complementary effort to shipments of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard and other liberal parts of the country by Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, and Texas’s governor, Greg Abbott. Unlike these Republicans, the Biden Administration is inviting sponsors, but in doing so he suggests, as DeSantis and Abbott have, that border states shouldn’t have to absorb all of the migrants trying to enter the United States. In this way, the Welcome Corps feels like an acknowledgment that Republicans have won the argument on immigration and that the only wiggle room the Biden Administration has is to launch an initiative funded largely by private citizens, which will benefit a relatively small number of people in need.

Yet to draw the conclusion that the Welcome Corps is an admission of defeat would be unfair. One of the main selling points of the program has been that it will benefit sponsors and their communities as much as refugees themselves. In his video announcing the Welcome Corps, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “I’m confident that if you join the the Welcome Corps, you won’t just change the lives of the refugees you help, you’ll change your own lives as well.” It’s a clever way to get ordinary Americans engaged in the conversation about the benefits of welcoming refugees and immigrants in general.

Because refugees have so far been resettled only in the places where resettlement agencies operate, it remains to be seen how refugees will be greeted in a wider range of communities. There is also the question of what will happen in the next phase of the program, when volunteers will be able to identify which refugees they hope to sponsor. The State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration hopes affinity groups, such as L.G.B.T.Q. organizations, colleges and universities, and diasporic communities, will sponsor the refugees whom they are best positioned to serve. Another hope is that, once private sponsors become invested in refugee resettlement, they won’t particularly care where the refugee they’re sponsoring comes from. But there is reason to believe that this won’t always be the case. Some citizens in other nations have been willing to accept only younger refugees, or those from certain countries or of particular ethnic and racial backgrounds.

Which refugees will get chosen, and which will get passed over? These are the sorts of questions that have no answer at the moment. The Welcome Corps assigns sponsors, instead of government, the responsibility to make positive arguments for refugee resettlement. It is certainly possible that the program will deepen divides within communities, or that it will erode some prejudices while reinforcing others. But maybe, just maybe, neighbors talking with one another about refugee resettlement can help change the minds of those who may have been unwelcoming in the past, and help them want to be more welcoming now. ♦