Overview of the Successes and Limitations Private Migrant Sponsorship Programs



Reason immigration writer Fiona Harrigan has a valuable new article surveying the growth of private migrant sponsorship over the last two years:

The two African refugees arrived in Oneonta, New York—a quaint, upstate college town of just over 12,000 people—in summer 2023. By then a group of volunteers had been preparing for them for “six, seven, eight years.”

Mark Wolff, communication chair of The Otsego Refugee Resettlement Coalition (ORRC), says his group had to put its hopes of helping refugees on hold during the Trump administration, which cut the refugee cap to its lowest level ever. Even after Joe Biden’s inauguration, with promises of a more humane immigration policy on the horizon, things didn’t look good for their plan…

The ORRC had already begun to raise money and identify community partners. It had done its homework and it had momentum. So when the Biden administration announced the Welcome Corps—an initiative that would let private citizens take the lead on sponsoring and supporting refugees, rather than the longstanding government-led approach—the coalition knew it had found its way to welcome newcomers. “We were one of the first [private sponsor groups] in the United States to get approval,” Wolff says…..

The Welcome Corps is one of several private sponsorship schemes to be rolled out in the last three years. From the Sponsor Circle Program for Afghans to Uniting for Ukraine to a program specifically for Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans (CHNV), Americans who are moved by scenes of suffering around the world can put those feelings into action.

Wolff’s sentiment speaks to the promise of these young private sponsorship schemes: getting more Americans directly involved in the welcoming process, getting newcomers to the point of self-sufficiency more quickly, and improving outcomes for immigrant and native communities alike. At a time when Americans are increasingly concerned about migration into the country, these community-driven approaches could be key to rebuilding trust in both immigrants and immigration.

As Harrigan recounts in detail, the new private sponsorship programs—beginning with Uniting for Ukraine (in which I am a sponsor myself)—have enabled hundreds of thousands migrants fleeing oppression and war enter the United States much faster than the traditional government-driven refugee system, and at little cost to the public fisc. By giving migrants an alternative legal way to enter the US, they have also reduced congestion and disorder at the southern border. Overall, these programs are the Biden Administration’s biggest and most successful immigration policy innovation.

But, as Fiona also notes, the programs have important limitations.  All were established through the exercise of executive discretion, which means the next president could potentially terminate them at any time. That’s a highly likely scenario if the next president turns out to be Donald Trump. Ideally, Congress would enact legislation preventing the executive from taking such action.

In addition, participants in most of these programs are only granted temporary residency and work permits (two years in the case of CNVH and Uniting for Ukraine, though participants in latter can now apply for two-year extensions, as can Afghan parolees). For reasons Fiona describes, it would be better if these rights were permanent.

Congress should pass adjustment acts to enable the Afghans, Ukrainians, and CHNV parolees stay permanently. See my discussion of the relevant issues here and here. Congress has previously enacted such legislation for other parolees fleeing war and oppression, including Hungarians, Cubans, and Vietnamese fleeing communism, much as CHNV refugees are currently doing.

The only private sponsorship program that does grant permanent residency rights is Welcome Corps. But participants are required to meet the absurdly narrow legal definition of “refugee” to be eligible. Congress could potentially fix this problem by expanding the definition.

Sadly, given the current political environment, it’s unlikely Congress will successfully address any of these issues in the near future. The long-run fate of the new private sponsorship programs may well depend on the outcome of the 2024 election.

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