Washington — The Biden administration is set to announce on Thursday a pilot program that will allow groups of private American citizens to financially sponsor the resettlement of refugees fleeing war and violence across the world, three people briefed on the announcement told CBS News.
The State Department initiative, which will be called Welcome Corps, could pave the way for a seismic shift in U.S. refugee policy, as most refugees brought to the U.S. for the past decades have been resettled by nine nonprofit organizations that receive federal funding.
Under the program, modeled after a long-standing system in Canada, groups of at least five U.S.-based individuals could have the opportunity to sponsor refugees if they raise $2,275 per refugee, pass background checks and submit a plan about how they will assist the newcomers, the sources said.
Approved private sponsors will play the role of traditional resettlement agencies, helping newly arrived refugees access housing and other basic necessities, such as food, medical services, education and public benefits for which they qualify.
The Biden administration initially said it would launch the program before the end of 2022. But in a statement in late December, the State Department said the timetable had shifted. During the first phase of the program, State Department officials will match sponsors with refugees overseas who already have been cleared to come to the U.S.
“Later on, we will introduce an identification component through the pilot program through which private sponsors will be able to identify refugees overseas to be referred to the (U.S. refugee program) and apply to support their resettlement as private sponsors,” the State Department said in its December statement.
The Welcome Corps initiative will be the latest Biden administration effort to expand legal immigration channels for refugees and migrants with family members and others in the U.S. willing to financially sponsor them.
In late 2021, the State Department allowed “sponsor circles” of at least five private individuals to sponsor some of the tens of thousands of Afghan evacuees relocated to the U.S. following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
Then, in early 2022, officials launched a program to allow Ukrainians displaced by the Russian invasion of their homeland to come to the U.S. under the humanitarian parole authority if they had U.S.-based sponsors. More than 100,000 Ukrainians have arrived in the U.S. under the policy, federal statistics show.
Officials have since expanded that approach, allowing U.S.-based individuals to sponsor the entry of citizens from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela as part of an effort to deter migrants from these countries from crossing the southern border illegally. Like Ukrainians, migrants from these countries will be allowed to live and work legally in the U.S. on a temporary basis through the parole authority.
Unlike those arriving under the parole authority, the refugees who will arrive under the sponsorship initiative set to be announced Thursday will be eligible for permanent legal status and ultimately, U.S. citizenship, since they will be processed through the traditional refugee program.
Formally created in 1980, the U.S. refugee program has granted a safe haven to more than 3 million refugees found to have fled armed conflicts, ethnic persecution and other forms violence. Refugees undergo interviews, security screenings and medical checks as part of a years-long process before coming to the U.S.
While President Biden vowed to rebuild the U.S. refugee system, which was crippled by the COVID-19 pandemic and drastic Trump-era cuts, his administration has struggled to return refugee admissions to pre-pandemic levels and to meet his lofty resettlement goals.
In fiscal year 2022, the U.S. admitted 25,465 refugees, using only 20% of 125,000 refugee spots allocated by Mr. Biden. In the first three months of fiscal year 2023, for which Mr. Biden again set a goal of welcoming up to 125,000 refugees, the U.S. resettled fewer than 7,000 refugees, State Department figures show.
While the pandemic temporarily suspended refugee admissions and slowed refuge interviews, the program was scaled back dramatically under policy directives issued by President Trump, who argued that refugees were economic, national security and cultural threats to the U.S.
The Trump administration dramatically slashed refugee admissions, allocating an all-time low of 15,000 spots in fiscal year 2021. It also restricted the categories of those who could be resettled, and tried to give states and cities a veto on refugee resettlement. The restrictions and record-low ceilings led the organizations that resettle refugees to lay off personnel and close offices across the country.
As the Biden administration has struggled to rebuild the U.S. refugee system, the number of people displaced by violence around the globe has surpassed 100 million, more than at any other time in history, according to the United Nations.
Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, one of the main U.S. resettlement groups, praised the private sponsorship program for relying on a “forward-thinking approach to leveraging the generosity of the American spirit.” But she urged the Biden administration to also prioritize speeding up refugee processing and increasing admissions.
“At a time of unprecedented global displacement, there are far too many vulnerable children and families depending on the full restoration of our nation’s humanitarian leadership,” Vignarajah said.