The Biden administration unveils new ways to sponsor immigrants
Americans have a bigger part to play in welcoming the stranger
Last February, Joe and Sandra Cutshall formed a sponsor circle with friends to welcome an Afghan family to their small town of Ida Grove, Iowa. They sponsored the family through Operation Allies Welcome, which the U.S. Department of Homeland Security formed to assist refugees when the Taliban took over Afghanistan in 2021. The Cutshalls and their friends rented an apartment for the newcomers.
“It’s about a mile away from here,” Joe said. “And so we did a lot of running back and forth” since none of the Afghan family members could drive. After about three months, the family joined their nephews who live two hours away.
Everyday Americans are playing an expanding role in sponsoring and resettling immigrants. Last week, the Biden administration announced the Welcome Corps, a new model for refugee resettlement. The system encourages groups of five or more U.S. citizens or permanent residents—instead of only large resettlement agencies—to band together to resettle a refugee in their community.
The announcement comes on the heels of several sponsorship programs for specific nationalities, including Operation Allies Welcome and Uniting for Ukraine. Those programs allowed U.S. residents, like the Cutshalls, to sponsor refugees for two years on humanitarian parole. Over the past few months, Biden introduced similar temporary sponsorship programs for Venezuelans, Cubans, Haitians, and Nicaraugans. Together, these initiatives signal a shift toward a community-based approach to record-breaking migration.
The Welcome Corps aims to bolster the refugee resettlement infrastructure, which is slowly regaining its footing after cuts under former President Donald Trump and sluggish regrowth in the early years of the Biden administration. The United States resettled approximately 25,400 refugees in the 2022 fiscal year, missing its admissions target of 125,000 by 80 percent. Just more than 11,411 refugees resettled in the United States in 2021.
There are over 21.3 million officially designated refugees worldwide. “Some of them have been waiting decades in a refugee camp or an urban center to have an opportunity to resettle in the United States,” said Kit Taintor, the vice president of policy and practice for Welcome.US, a coalition supporting refugees. A refugee is vetted and granted refugee status while still outside the United States—as opposed to asylum-seekers who make their case once they arrive on American soil.
Nine nonprofit resettlement agencies contract with the U.S. government to provide the resources and support to successfully resettle refugees around the country. Slashes to refugee infrastructure also forced resettlement agencies to make cuts restricting their capacity. Under the new system, citizens and permanent residents can help fill the gap.
“Having another path for resettlement, like through the Welcome Corps, helps us … create dual, complimentary pipelines,” said Taintor. Resettlement agencies only operate in a few large cities. But the Welcome Corps can resettle refugees in any part of the United States.
Individual Americans and private associations often sponsored refugees in previous decades, especially after World War II. In 1986, former President Ronald Reagan created a sponsorship program that resettled 16,000 refugees using private funds.
Under the Welcome Corps, a group of five or more adults can sponsor any refugee, not just Afghans or Ukrainians, if U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has already vetted and approved them for resettlement. A sponsor group must raise a minimum of $2,275 to provide for a refugee’s basic needs until he or she finds employment.
Most likely, refugees from sub-Saharan Africa who have been waiting years for a placement will be among the first to arrive. By mid 2023, the Welcome Corps will allow sponsors to select refugees and refer their application to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.
Humanitarian parole programs such as Uniting for Ukraine differ from the Welcome Corps because immigrants on parole do not have refugee status and, as a result, no path to citizenship. Refugees can gain permanent residency after one year and apply for citizenship after five. The two-year parole status is designed to address urgent humanitarian needs and bypass the winding refugee resettlement process. Immigrants on humanitarian parole must join the asylum line—a process that could take years due to backlogs. Their other option? Wait for a divided Congress to pass an adjustment act that grants them a pathway to citizenship.
Protections that ensure adequate support for sponsored immigrants are key, argued Jennie Murray, president and CEO of the National Immigration Forum. But she believes the growing emphasis on community sponsorship for both refugees and immigrants on humanitarian parole is a positive change to how Americans approach immigration.
“Giving that access is a really wonderful way to … transform neighborhoods and make sure that people feel connected with the newcomers,” she said.
Some U.S. citizens or permanent residents sponsor their family members who want to immigrate. When Sorangel Rojas heard about the parole program for Venezuelans in October, she jumped at the chance to sponsor her 32-year-old nephew, Junior Navarro. She filled out the required form to prove she and her husband could financially support Navarro. Once approved, Navarro filled out his side of the application and waited for clearance to travel. After the monthlong process, Navarro arrived in the United States on Christmas Eve.
Back in Iowa, the Cutshalls welcomed a Ukrainian couple and their 4-year-old son in September, picking them up at the Chicago airport after getting to know them over WhatsApp. The empty nesters hosted the family for about 10 weeks in the upstairs bedroom of their 1940s home. The Ukrainian family now rents a fully furnished house a few blocks away. They found jobs and enrolled their son in preschool. The wife began volunteering in the Awana program at the Cutshalls’ church.
The Cutshalls see sponsorship as a way to breathe new life into their tiny community. “There’s jobs here,” said Joe. “It’s a good life, but there’s always something else somewhere.” They’ve seen their community shrink as young people, including their own children, leave their rural area. Private sponsorship brings more people into their community.
It’s also a ministry. “We support missionaries and missions … but we’re not the ones to go,” Sandra said. “We’re the ones to have people come, and we can open our home and our resources for them.”