How to Select Refugees for Private Sponsorship

This summer, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced that the worldwide refugee crisis, the worst in absolute terms since World War II, had reached a new record high. Recognizing that the refugee crisis is beyond what governments alone can handle, UNHCR has urged nations to create “privately sponsored admission schemes,” allowing the private sector to shoulder the burden of resettlement.

Many governments have heeded this call, but despite the strong philanthropic traditions among Americans, the United States has still not created such a program. There are many questions that need to be answered before the government can move forward. The most pressing is how to select the refugees for resettlement. Here are several different models for sponsorship that policymakers should consider:

1) Use the current system without an option for sponsors to select specific refugees. Except in a few rare cases (see #3 below), the State Department, UNHCR, or one of UNHCR’s non-governmental partner organizations identifies refugees in need of resettlement. While sponsors would not select the refugees that they wished to sponsor under this model, the government could, as it does when placing refugees with the nonprofits that coordinate all resettlement today, match refugees with sponsors that it felt were best suited to meet their needs. This method’s primary virtue is that it would be the simplest to administer and implement because it requires no further changes to the system.

2) Sponsors choose from a pool of refugees selected under the current system. In this version, sponsors would choose from refugees already identified under the normal refugee vetting and identification process who are designated for resettlement, based on information that the State Department already collects. This was how American sponsors selected refugees under the Reagan-era private refugee sponsorship program. Depending on the sponsorship model, this could impose new administrative costs on the agency to provide oversight of sponsors and protect against trafficking, but would create a much stronger incentive for sponsors who are interested in aiding a particular group of refugees to step forward and actually sponsor them.

3) Expand family sponsorship under the current system. The Priority 3 (P-3) family reunification program provides for a very narrow group of refugees to be “sponsored,” albeit without the financial commitment that the UNHCR model proposes. P-3 allows U.S. residents to ask the State Department to allow their family members abroad to apply directly to the U.S. refugee program. P-3 is rarely used because it is limited to certain nationalities, it applies only to U.S. residents who entered as refugees, and accepts only their immediate family members—minor children and spouses.

Removing these restrictions and opening it up to extended family members, as was done for Bosnians in the 1990s under the P-4 and P-5 programs, could provide a basis for a large private sponsorship program. P-3 “sponsors” are also not required to take financial responsibility for the family member. In order for private sponsorship to build on the total number of refugees admitted, these sponsors would either need to compensate the government for its expenses or provide services that the government currently provides on its behalf.

The benefit of family sponsorship is that DNA testing can accurately verify a familial relationship, alleviating concerns about human trafficking and other potential security issues. While DNA testing can be expensive and time-consuming, family sponsorship would provide a powerful incentive for Americans to sponsor refugees.

4) Allow sponsors to select any refugee that they choose. While simplest to state, this method would be the most difficult and costly to administer. A person who submits a sponsorship application would need to be thoroughly vetted to guard against trafficking, an entirely new procedure that the agency would need to develop. If the refugee had not already been identified by UNHCR, an NGO, or the State Department, a new evaluation would have to be conducted to verify their claims. Homeland Security officials would also need to interview the refugee (under the current process, they set up in a camp and identify refugees for resettlement on site.)

Nevertheless, these issues are worth overcoming. Canada, which has the most successful private sponsorship model in the world, has an open sponsorship model that allows sponsors to name any specific person who meets the definition of a refugee. Sponsors select refugees both with and without family relationships—though family-linked cases dominate the program—and more than 225,000 refugees have been privately sponsored since 1979 under the Canadian model.

No matter what model the agency chooses to go with, the American private sector could do quite a lot to alleviate the refugee crisis. Many businesses are already contributing millions of dollars to aid refugees overseas, and major U.S. philanthropists have said that they want to see a private refugee program created in the United States. It is time that the government allowed Americans to save refugees on their own.