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US Citizens Get a Chance to Play a Role in Refugee Resettlement

WASHINGTON (AP) — A government program launched Thursday gives American citizens the opportunity to play a role in relocating the thousands of refugees who come to the United States each year.

During the first year of operation of the Welcome Corps, the State Department intends to recruit 10,000 Americans to help 5,000 refugees adjust to life in the United States.

“By drawing on the goodwill of American communities, the Welcome Corps will expand our country’s ability to provide a warm welcome to more refugees,” the department said in a statement.

When refugees from all over the world arrive in the US, they face a very different way of life. To facilitate this transition, the department has traditionally worked with nonprofit refugee groups. Under the new program, five or more Americans can form a team and help fill this role.

They will apply to privately sponsor refugees to resettle in the US and will be responsible for raising their own money to help the refugees during the first 90 days. Assistance will include everything from meeting refugees at the airport to finding housing and enrolling children in school.

A consortium of non-profit organizations with expertise in refugee resettlement will help oversee the screening and certification of individuals and groups wishing to become private donors. They will also offer training so that private donors understand what it takes to help refugees adjust to life in America. The consortium will be responsible for monitoring the program.

The program will be rolled out in two phases. First, private sponsors will be matched against refugees already granted resettlement permits under the US Refugee Program. This will start in the first half of 2023.

Later, private donors could identify refugees abroad they would like to help, and then refer those people to the Refugee Assistance Program and help them upon arrival in the US.

The program differs from a recent initiative that allows 30,000 people from Nicaragua, Cuba, Haiti and Venezuela to enter the country every month. They also need a sponsor, but are allowed into the US under humanitarian parole, which lasts two years and does not allow them to become permanent residents or citizens.

Through the refugee program, people fleeing violence or persecution can come to the US and stay there forever. Since the Refugee Act was passed in 1980, the US has taken in just over 3 million refugees.

The Welcome Corps program follows a similar, smaller project where the Americans could sponsor Afghans or Ukrainians. This program was launched in October 2021 and has helped just over 800 people come to America through a network of 230 Certified Sponsorship Circles, which includes a total of about 5,000 people.

Sasha Chanoff, founder and CEO of RefugePoint, a Boston-based organization that supports Afghan refugees, said Canada has long used a similar model to help resettle refugees. Chanoff said the circle of sponsors program relies on the tremendous goodwill of Americans to sponsor refugees, which goes beyond political divisions.

“This is perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in our history — especially in our recent history — to really open up space to protect the lives of Americans by sponsoring a family,” he said. “We are seeing incredible interest from the American public — Republicans, Democrats, liberals, conservatives, veterans, and many other members of the political spectrum.”

President Joe Biden, in a 2021 executive order, promised to restore the US as a world refuge and called for private sponsorship of refugees. Under President Donald Trump, the US has largely phased out the refugee program.

But Thursday’s announcement comes as the US is far off track if it hopes to meet Biden’s goal of accepting 125,000 refugees into the US during fiscal year 2023. The US admitted just 6,750 refugees during December, three months of the fiscal year, according to the State Department.

Krish O’Mara Vinyaraja, President and CEO of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, praised the Biden administration’s “forward-thinking” program that “can strengthen the bonds between refugees and the communities they call home.” But Vinyaraja also noted the small number of refugees accepted. The group is a national non-profit organization that helps refugees, asylum seekers and other immigrants.

“The Biden administration should prioritize streamlining refugee intake, which unfortunately remains low this fiscal year. Without urgent action to improve efficiency, there is a risk that the compassion of individual donors and the expertise of professional refugee resettlement organizations will be wasted,” Vinyaraja said in a statement.

Assistant Secretary of State Juliette Valles Noyes told reporters Thursday that the agency responsible for interviewing refugees abroad conducted more than 20,000 interviews during the first quarter of the year and that she was “confident” that the number of refugees arriving in the coming months would increase.

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AP diplomatic commentator Matthew Lee contributed to this report.

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Follow Santana on Twitter @ruskygal

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