President Biden issued an executive order providing for a number of changes to the U.S. refugee program that President Trump had gutted during his four years in office. One important change follows a recommendation from Cato’s compilation of 30 executive actions to restore legal immigration (and many other times): private refugee sponsorship. The president states:
To meet the challenges of restoring and expanding USRAP, the United States must innovate, including by effectively employing technology and capitalizing on community and private sponsorship of refugees, while continuing to partner with resettlement agencies for reception and placement.
As I’ve explained before, private sponsorship has been highly successful in Canada for decades and following the United Nations’ call for more such programs at least seven other countries have created some version of private sponsorship since 2014. The president can implement a privately funded refugee program with his existing authority under the Refugee Act of 1980, which already requires him to consider available private funds before setting the refugee target.
While this is an extremely positive development, the order provides no specifics on implementation. The State Department had previously committed to creating a private sponsorship program under the Obama administration in 2016, so hopefully the department already has some particulars worked out.
I have outlined four models under which private individuals or community groups could select refugees for resettlement under a private sponsorship program. The Biden administration could implement all of them simultaneously.
- Allow the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to recommend certain refugees referred for resettlement for private sponsorship.
- Allow private sponsors to choose from a pool of refugees referred for resettlement under the existing system.
- Expand existing Priority 3 (P-3) family sponsorship to include more extended relatives as was done for Bosnians in the 1990s could expand sponsorship through an existing channel. Similarly, I proposed that the administration grant refugee status to any family who are refugees caught in the green card backlog. Family of Americans shouldn’t die abroad waiting for a green card.
- Allow sponsors to select any refugees that they want abroad. While more complicated to administer, the ability to select refugees of particular concern to the sponsor would create a powerful incentive to engage with the program.
Another important element that must be a part of any private sponsorship program is the concept of “additionality.” Any privately sponsored refugee should come in addition to those resettled by the U.S. government. If private resettlement merely does what the government already committed to do, that vastly reduces the incentive to participate.
However, because the president has not yet raised the refugee cap, we aren’t sure if private resettlement or “additionality” will be part of this year’s plan. If the president does raise the refugee limit to 125,000, it will come close to meeting another recommendation in our compilation of 30 ideas for the administration: that more resettlement is warranted due to increasing numbers of refugees worldwide. This would reverse a trend of the United States taking a decreasing share of the worldwide refugee population.