The United States is launching a new programme that will allow groups of people and organisations in the US to “sponsor” refugees seeking sanctuary in the country, a move that was welcomed by rights groups as a positive step.

On Thursday, the US Department of State announced the introduction of “Welcome Corps”, which will enable the general public to help cover the costs of resettlement for refugees arriving through the US Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP).

Groups of at least five people will be expected to raise a minimum of $2,275 per sponsored refugee. The sponsor groups, open to US citizens or permanent residents, will also be required to pass background checks and create a support plan, according to a related government website.

“The Welcome Corps is the boldest innovation in refugee resettlement in four decades,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.

“It is designed to strengthen and expand the capacity of the USRAP by harnessing the energy and talents of Americans from all walks of life desiring to serve as private sponsors.”

The announcement has been welcomed by refugee advocacy groups, which have been calling on US President Joe Biden’s government to do more to help address record numbers of refugees worldwide.

Rights groups have clashed with the Biden administration over several contentious immigration policies, including restrictions aimed at stemming the arrival of migrants and refugees at the US’s southern border with Mexico.

Welcome Corps will initially apply only to refugees who have already been approved for entry into the US, the Department of State said in a fact sheet. At a later stage, private sponsors will be able to identify refugees to support.

Blinken said on Thursday that the goal is to get at least 10,000 Americans to come forward as private sponsors for at least 5,000 refugees in the first year of the programme, which is similar to a model used in Canada.

The programme is “a concrete step towards not just rebuilding, but also innovating US refugee resettlement to increase capacity and impact”, Elizabeth Foydel, director of the private sponsorship programme at the International Refugee Assistance Project, said in a statement.

“We look forward to working with the Biden administration to build a permanent private sponsorship program that deepens connections between new neighbors, strengthens communities, and allows more refugees to find a safe place to call home,” Foydel said.

HIAS, a prominent refugee resettlement group in the US, also welcomed the launch of Welcome Corps as offering “a new, permanent way for Americans to welcome #refugees from crises worldwide”.

Refugee cap

Upon taking office in early 2021, Biden had faced calls to lift the refugee admissions cap after his predecessor, Donald Trump, set it at an historically low level as part of his administration’s push to restrict immigration.

Biden set a cap of 125,000 refugee admissions into the US for this fiscal year, which began on October 1, 2022, but only 6,750 refugees arrived from October to December, according to programme data.

In Thursday’s fact sheet, the Department of State said the new refugee resettlement programme fulfilled a commitment from Biden, who had slammed Trump’s stance on immigration and promised to reverse some of his harshest policies.

But Biden has taken a harder line in recent months as right-wing lawmakers blamed him for a rising number of migrants and refugees seeking entry to the US at the border with Mexico.

Immigrant rights groups responded with outrage when the Biden administration recently moved to expand one of the Trump administration’s most controversial immigration policies, Title 42. US authorities have used the measure to turn away most asylum seekers at the border on the grounds of combatting COVID-19.

The Biden administration had initially tried to bring the policy to an end but was blocked by the courts as Republican-led states sued to keep it in place.

However, it recently announced it would begin sending asylum seekers from Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and Haiti back to Mexico in what rights groups denounced as an expansion of Title 42.

At the same time, the US will allow as many as 30,000 Cuban, Haitian, Nicaraguan and Venezuelan nationals into the country each month and give them two-year work permits. But this process, known as “parole”, only applies to individuals who have a US-based sponsor that passes rigorous vetting and will provide financial support.

Rights advocates have argued that establishing more accessible and widespread ways for refugees to come to the US can help address irregular migration. In recent years, thousands of people have been forced to make perilous journeys to escape violence and disasters in their home countries.

Andrea Flores, a former Biden administration immigration official, cheered the new US refugee resettlement scheme announced this week. “We need creative pilot programs like Welcome Corps to address global migration trends,” Flores said in a Twitter post.

“With private sponsorship for refugees and new parole options, the Biden Admin will ultimately relieve pressure at the border, negating any need to create new restrictions on asylum.”

aljazeera