Welcome Corps: The Future of Refugee Policy

On Jan.19th, the U.S. Department of State announced the future of refugee resettlement:  “Welcome Corps.” This program allows private citizens to welcome refugees into their community through sponsorship, resettlement and integration. Only a month after the announcement, 22,000 prospective volunteers have already requested more information on how to be private sponsors. It’s clear that the American people welcome refugees, and this policy helps the government follow suit. 

No one person can sponsor individually; instead, five or more American citizens or lawful citizens over the age of 18 who live in or around the same community must unite to form a private sponsorship group (PSG) and pass a quick background check. After that, one member of the PSG must complete an online course covering the basics of sponsorship and integration. Then, and crucially, the group must fill out a welcome plan which assures that the resources necessary for integration (job training, language lessons, etc.) are available and accessible in your community. Once that’s complete, the PSG must collectively fundraise $2,275 per refugee the group hopes to welcome. A quick application form is filled out to complete the process, and suddenly your PSG is registered with the Welcome Corps.

Some could argue this process seems scarily simple. It seems dubious that someone who is responsible for integrating a vulnerable person into a completely new environment must only fill out a few forms and raise some money. Yet, as the assistant secretary of state for population, refugees, and migration, Julieta Valls Noyes, explained, “There are many, many checkpoints, many, many fail-safes, vetting, all that is part of this program to prevent any abuses.” Not only will the sponsors be screened and vetted by a consortium of non-profits who work with refugee resettlement, but the sponsors will also be regularly monitored.

Welcome Corps representatives argue that the program’s framework not only leads to community growth but is also strengthened internally. Many Americans regularly donate more than the amount required to sponsor a refugee to charity every year; thus, one could argue there’s no reason for a “group effort.” However, as Noyes explained, “It’s not about money. It’s about commitment. It’s about the community. It’s about bringing people together and forming a group so that the refugees have more than one person they can refer to and can work with… this program feeds on the remaining pieces of America’s collectivist roots and seeks to foster connections.”

Currently, the refugees entering the program have already been approved for resettlement to the United States through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). These individuals have completed thorough security vetting and health screening. The first group of refugees welcomed into the country will mostly be from sub-Saharan Africa. Refugees are only referred for resettlement when “resettlement is their best possible durable solution.” Later this year, the program aims to expand to allow PSGs to identify refugees and refer them to the USRAP for consideration.

As claimed by the State Department, this program is the “boldest innovation in refugee resettlement in four decades.” Without diminishing the truth in this statement, it must be noted that 1) similar programs already exist in other nations and 2) other nations consistently do more for refugees than the United States. In Canada, a program very similar to Welcome Corps has existed for the past decade, helping resettle over 350,000 refugees. Looking globally, the United States hosts 734,000 refugees, accounting for 0.2% of the population. In countries like Lebanon, Jordan and Sweden, refugees comprise 19.8%, 10.4%, and 2.6% of their populations.

Although this program hasn’t been around long enough to face extreme backlash (even the New York Post had nothing bad to say), I could see how it could be a victim of contempt. One could beg the question: Why is the government’s responsibility falling into the laps of private citizens? In short, it’s not. This program does not replace nor substitute the robust refugee framework already in place. The Office of Refugee Resettlement, which operates under the US department and Health and Human Services, still processes over 25,000 refugees annually. Similarly, Nonprofits like the International Rescue Committee, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and Interfaith Refugee and Immigrant Services will continue to expand and serve this demographic. Yet, it allows private citizens to stand at the forefront of refugee resettlement and engage in civil society. Before this program, private citizens could only be part of the resettlement program through co-sponsorship with faith-based organizations and the government. The Welcome Corps program bridges the gap and connects citizens directly to the government.

Mark Krikorian, the Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a known anti-immigration think tank, expressed his concerns that the “private” program is not “private” at all. He claims that the program fails to highlight its use of taxpayers’ dollars, completely brushing over the fundraising part of the sponsorship application and the fact that all government programs use taxpayer dollars. Krikorian also worries that “activist groups, often funded by the government, may well hijack the program by recruiting individuals to sign sponsorship documents.” Even if Welcome Corps follows through with its plan to allow PSGs to refer refugees to the USRAP, the refugees will still be subject to the same entry requirements.

Welcome Corps is widely supported— more than 200 diverse organizations signaled their support for the program. As Becca Heller, the Executive Director of International Refugee Assistance said, “The Welcome Corps is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to directly engage communities in the resettlement process and allow more refugees to find a safe place to call home.”

This policy is crucial in Joe Biden’s presidency and America’s future. Nativist perspectives skyrocketed during the Trump Era, only to be met with increased xenophobia during the COVID-19 pandemic. Only 25,400 refugees were resettled in the United States in the 2022 fiscal year, compared to the 125,000 individuals Biden hoped for. America is failing to respond to the international refugee crisis, but the Welcome Corps program could fix this.

Rather than looking at this program as a failure of government capacity, we should view it as a reflection of private citizens’ desires to support their community. Although there is still much to be done in terms of refugee resettlement, this program allows another pathway for refugees seeking a safer home. This program is the manifestation of the American people’s propensity to welcome, and now refugee policy reflects that.