In September 2022, President Joe Biden announced his administration’s goal of resettling up to 125,000 refugees over the next 12 months. This ambitious announcement came in the aftermath of drastic cuts to refugee admissions under the Trump administration.
Refugee admissions plummeted from 85,000 refugees in the last year of the Obama administration to just over 11,000 in 2020. As resettlement agencies drastically lost vital sources of federal funding, over 100 resettlement offices were forced to close under the Trump administration. Once resettlement agencies lost that capacity, they struggled to rebuild and welcome new refugees. In a recent panel discussion, Lawrence Bartlett, the State Department’s Director of the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration’s Office of Admissions, said the Trump administration’s efforts led to a refugee system that was “underpopulated and under-resourced.” He added, “the United States is rebuilding its refugee resettlement program to restore this beacon of hope for those fleeing persecution.”
The US refugee resettlement budget allocation highlights these shifting strategies: For fiscal year (FY) 2021, the Department of Health and Human Services budget allocation for its refugee services totaled $2 billion; FY 2022 more than doubled that amount with a $4.4 billion allocation. This upcoming FY 2023, the Department of Health and Human Services requested a budget allocation of $6.3 billion to support refugee resettlement programs.
THE FRAGILITY OF US RESETTLEMENT
The Trump administration nearly dismantled the US resettlement apparatus. For decades, the United States led global refugee admissions, but what became clear in those years is just how fragile these systems can be. In the wake of mass-scale evacuations in Afghanistan and Ukraine, the State Department has introduced pilot initiatives for private and community sponsorship of incoming humanitarian parolees. This is a step in the right direction to strengthen the US’ international commitment and bolster its efforts toward refugee protection amidst growing global displacement, but its impact has been limited. By opening pilot initiatives for private sponsorship to all refugees, the United States will facilitate greater access to their protection and integration.
In a private sponsorship model, sponsors themselves become key to a refugee’s welcome and stay in the United States. Private sponsors range from individuals to community associations, private enterprises, ethnic organizations, churches, and nonprofits dedicated to refugee and resettlement programs. Sponsors provide financial support for newly-arrived refugees and deliver “post-arrival services and benefits for one year.”
As various players across the political spectrum change, refugees have a bubble of protection through private sponsorship, as it offers flexibility to work within or alongside a government-led refugee resettlement program.
Private sponsorship programs can help expand the capacity of the US refugee program in the face of already-limited resources. Upon arrival, sponsors assume financial responsibility for the refugees, ensuring no further stressors on public funds, services, or programs. With a growing influx of asylum-seekers, the private sponsorship model would provide much-needed assistance to resettlement and integration efforts. By rallying vetted private sponsors, refugees will receive access to core services, such as housing, skills building, language courses, and employment. This not only allows refugees in the program to become self-sufficient in less time but also promotes their human security as they navigate a new environment.
The budget and programmatic cuts of the Trump administration have severely hampered our public resettlement system’s ability to resettle new refugees. The Biden administration sought to recover refugee quotas by setting the refugee admissions target at 125,000 last year; however, the US Refugee Admissions Program admitted fewer than 20,000 refugees. We are falling short of our humanitarian goals precisely because our resettlement system is still in shambles. The private sponsorship model could present a stop-gap solution until the public system can rebuild itself. By implementing a private sponsorship model alongside the public system, we can increase the number of incoming refugees without overwhelming resettlement agencies.
A STEPPING STONE
Biden’s private sponsorship program offers a new stepping stone toward rebuilding and restoring our refugee resettlement program. Historically, the United States has led the global community on refugee protection, hosting roughly 3 million refugees since the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980. Despite its impressive past performance, a rising climate of anti-immigration and xenophobia flared by border migration flows, incomplete facts, reactive policymaking, and disagreement is positioning to reverse this legacy. The Trump era, reflecting the intensity of these political shifts and furor, rapidly expelled and restricted refugee admissions. As these political paradigms continue to crystallize, their collision with the refugee policy is apparent, as both the Trump and Biden administrations have drastically failed to maintain refugee quota levels.
The pilot program mobilizes community partners to directly engage in the refugee resettlement process and harmonizes a collective effort to mitigate turbulent political shifts. As a long-term strategy, this design helps to create a constituency with more favorable attitudes towards refugees, facilitating a way to expand the capacity of the US by resettling more refugees than it would otherwise resettle. As various players across the political spectrum change, refugees have a bubble of protection through private sponsorship, as it offers flexibility to work within or alongside a government-led refugee resettlement program. As governments change and spending cuts occur, the case for increased refugee resettlement is more feasible when the private sector is investing financially. Private sponsorship isn’t a one-stop solution for US refugee failures, but its collaborative approach with refugee partners helps to ensure more resources are committed to improving refugee admission, resettlement, and protection against global displacement.
The US resettlement model typically prioritizes the concept of self-sufficiency — ensuring that refugees obtain employment and economic self-sufficiency within their first 90 days of arrival. But many better outcomes that community sponsors provide lie outside the traditional “self-sufficiency” model. Community sponsors, currently operating outside the resettlement system, have brought innovative solutions that are absent from the resettlement process. From culturally competent mental health programming to affordable childcare and transportation to resettlement services, these sponsors have identified where refugees struggle and offered community solutions for long-term integration. Supporting a private sponsorship model alongside the public model creates opportunities for community-driven solutions, which can then be scaled up after they have proven their efficacy.
SUPPORTING PRIVATE SPONSORSHIP MODELS
Private and community sponsorship improves the outcomes for refugees that are resettled in the United States. In Canada, its longstanding private sponsorship model has been able to outpace public channels — nearly twice as many refugees in 2019 came through private resettlement compared to the public system. Private sponsorship has improved outcomes for refugees, especially those who need greater investment at the start of their resettlement process.
Multiple studies show that privately sponsored refugees had higher employment rates and earnings than government-assisted refugees in the initial years after their arrival, as well as greater degrees of economic independence. Since refugees arriving through private sponsorship usually have pre-existing ties to their sponsor, they tend to adapt more quickly to life in Canada compared to those coming through public pathways. In many cases, privately sponsored refugees remained in contact with their sponsors long past their legal responsibility to do so—helping refugees better integrate into their new communities in the long term.
The United States has not supported private sponsorship models since the 1980s, but many resettlement agencies have operated community sponsorship programs that bring in community groups to help deliver services and support refugees. Studies examining these programs in the United States found that refugees with community sponsors have higher English language enrollment rates and higher rates of employment. Community sponsorship has proven especially helpful for refugees with lower English language proficiency and fewer ties to family in the US, allowing them to more quickly develop the skills needed for long-term integration.
Additionally, a 2019 study from McMaster University in Canada demonstrates the positive impact of social networks in successful refugee resettlement efforts, which is particularly true in private sponsorship programs. Because private sponsors are often financially responsible for the well-being of the refugees they accept, they are better incentivized to prepare them for financial independence through economic integration within the labor market.
Moreover, community networks provide refugees not just with employment opportunities but the opportunity and resources to become entrepreneurs and contribute to the local economy as business owners and employers. This is particularly important to the social and economic integration of refugees: entrepreneurship, when it is divorced from forced self-reliance, fosters economic independence for the refugee, allows them to build social capital within their ethnic and larger communities, and provides another vessel for employment opportunities to newly-arrived refugees, further building the private networks within the proposed sponsorship model.
The global community has historically viewed the United States as a safe haven for those fleeing persecution and displacement. As global unrest and displacement reach unprecedented levels, it is imperative that our humanitarian agenda remains innovative, timely, and effective and can match the demand for refugee resettlement and admissions. Private sponsorship shines as an asset to shield vulnerable refugees from dramatic cuts to resources and resettlement opportunities. Expanding private sponsorship will strengthen the US resettlement apparatus by facilitating greater access to refugee protection and integration, harmonizing the collective efforts of the community to mitigate political resistance, and improving the outcomes for refugees.
Larquana Bryan is a global development professional and researcher with nearly 6 years of experience with a focus on migration, economic inclusion, gender equality, environment and health programming. She currently works for a private international organization based in Vienna, Virginia.
Reema Saleh is a writer, policy professional, and media producer. She is currently a graduate student at the University of Chicago, specializing in global conflict and international development, and she is passionate about using her research skills for advocacy-driven storytelling. Her work can be found at reemasaleh.com.
Daniella Torres has spent her career serving and advocating for migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees. Her work involves supporting attorneys and petitioners on a federal case representing separated migrant families at the southern border, conducting research on migration policy in the Northern Triangle region for the US Department of State, and organizing and leading asylum workshops in Spanish and English.
The authors are part of Women of Color Advancing Peace, Security & Conflict Transformation’s (WCAPS) Young Ambassador Program (YAP), women who are emerging experts and professionals in their fields of international development, national security, peace, and technology.