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When the U.S. State Department announced a new refugee program recently, the ears of America’s neighbor to the north might have been ringing.
The State Department is calling Welcome Corps, which would allow Americans to privately sponsor and support displaced people seeking a new life in the U.S., the “boldest innovation in refugee resettlement in four decades.” But a similar program – which experts broadly describe as the blueprint for private sponsorship – is already in place in Canada.
“The Government of Canada, the people of Canada, have been using this model for a number of years, and it’s been wildly successful there,” a senior State Department official said during an on-background briefing on Jan. 19. “And we are very grateful to our friends and allies in Canada who gave us a lot of advice as we were designing this program.”
U.S. officials are optimistic about the program, and advocates have praised Welcome Corps as a helpful addition to refugee resettlement. But analysts add that while it certainly seems like the country is trying to copy Canada’s long-running system, whether that’s a good thing across the board is another issue, as Canada has had its own sponsorship-related challenges.
How Welcome Corps was born
Though Welcome Corps’ roots date back to an executive order from President Biden shortly after he took office in January 2021, the idea of creating a sponsorship model in the U.S. took on a new urgency several months later in the aftermath of the Taliban takeover of Kabul in August. When that situation caused millions of Afghans to be uprooted from their lives, the response from the U.S. government was, “‘Okay, we need an extra tool’” for bringing in societal refugees, says Brian Dyck, the migration and resettlement program coordinator for Mennonite Central Committee Canada, a Christian nonprofit focused on peace and justice efforts.
Dyck says he, along with other experts in Canada, advised the Biden administration in the early stages of creating a private sponsorship system for the country. The first incarnation was part of a program for displaced Afghans through humanitarian parole, which is run through a streamlined process that moves more quickly than the official U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, but doesn’t come with a path to citizenship or many benefits. Ukrainians were later given a similar pathway after Russia’s invasion in February 2022.
Many Afghans who arrived in the U.S. through their own parole process were connected with private sponsors through the related Sponsor Circle Program – a predecessor of Welcome Corps. Around the same time, Welcome.US – a sponsorship-mobilizing nonprofit that initially focused on assisting displaced Afghans – was launched, with four former presidents and first ladies as honorary co-chairs.
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Eventually, Welcome Corps itself was launched. The State Department says it will be facilitating matches between vetted private sponsors and refugees – including those already approved for resettlement under the official admissions program – in two phases throughout 2023, with a first-year goal of having 10,000 Americans sponsor at least 5,000 displaced people.
Beyond what was already said during that background briefing in January, the State Department confirmed to U.S. News that its North American neighbor played a role in advising officials on how to launch the program.
“We routinely engage with the Government of Canada on matters of third-country resettlement for refugees,” a department spokesperson said in a statement on background. “In developing the Welcome Corps, we sought guidance and lessons learned from our Canadian counterparts who have successfully used the private sponsorship model for refugee resettlement in Canada for many decades.”
It’s understandable that they sought that guidance. Canada’s private sponsorship program is the “oldest and largest in the world,” according to a 2021 analysis by the Niskanen Center, a think tank that advocates for immigration reform among other policy areas. The Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan organization that seeks to improve immigration and integration policies through research, notes in a 2021 piece that Canada’s system is promoted by the United Nations’ refugee agency as a model, and countries such as Argentina, Australia, Germany and Spain have started or committed to similar programs.
Many advocates for refugees see the U.S. joining the fray as exciting – as long as it’s used as a complement, not a replacement, to the official refugee admissions process that has recently been backlogged.
“I think this is absolutely the right thing to do – to offer private sponsorship to expand our capacity for hospitality and welcome in this radical, incredible way,” says Diya Abdo, an English professor at Guilford College and founder of Every Campus a Refuge, an initiative that mobilizes college and university campuses to house refugees.
Abdo’s nonprofit has already signed on as a private sponsor organization for Welcome Corps. She believes that by increasing the number of sponsors involved in welcoming refugees and investing in their safety, resettlement becomes a community issue where integration of newcomers benefits everyone.
There is evidence that Americans are motivated to help: Abdo says 10,000 people signed up for a Welcome Corps information session within two weeks of its announcement.
How Welcome Corps compares to Canada’s model
There are some notable differences between Welcome Corps and Canada’s sponsorship program.
Canada’s refugee program has three components, according to the Migration Policy Institute. The first is Canada’s official Government-Assisted Refugees program, in which government-funded nonprofits help resettle refugees. Then there are two separate arms that are tied to sponsorship: the Private Sponsorship of Refugees program, which allows people to nominate refugees themselves, and the Blended Visa Office-Referred program. The latter is actually a better comparison to the Welcome Corps, says Ian Van Haren, the author of the previously referenced 2021 Migration Policy Institute article and executive director of Action Réfugiés Montréal, a Canada-based nonprofit that seeks justice for refugees and asylum seekers. Like its American equivalent, that program involves sponsors working with refugees already proposed by the United Nations.
Canada’s version has run into challenges, however. Van Haren notes in his article that while Canada’s Blended Visa Office-Referred program was popular in 2016 around the Syrian refugee crisis, the Canadian government “has struggled recently to find willing sponsors for refugees they do not know.”
For that reason, both Van Haren and Dyck, of Mennonite Central Committee Canada, say that Canada’s Private Sponsorship of Refugees program has been more geared toward family reunification. A 2019 paper from the Migration Policy Institute’s Europe arm confirms that “in practice, many refugees are sponsored by extended family members.”
Welcome Corps won’t be run that way at first, but the State Department has said that private groups will be able to identify refugees to refer for sponsorship during the second phase of its launch. A department spokesperson confirmed to U.S. News that prospective sponsors will be able to choose which path they want to take even after the second phase is underway.
Some experts say that gives them cause for concern.
“I would say the negative side of that is that it might not be the most fair process, right?” says Daniel Beers, an associate professor in the justice studies department at James Madison University, referring to the path of sponsors nominating refugees themselves. “Because you’re really just talking about bringing people who have the connections.”
There’s also a significant difference between each country’s minimum length of time required for supporting refugees. While Canada’s program requires sponsors to provide support for a year, Welcome Corps only requires 90 days. Beers describes Welcome Corps’ 90-day limit as “keeping with the bare bones, minimalist level of support for refugees in the U.S. [Refugee Admissions] program, which is problematic.”
On a similar note, some analysts wonder how refugees will be supported if sponsors back out of their commitment or if the fit isn’t right. The Welcome Corps website notes that private sponsor groups must commit to providing “welcoming services,” including securing and furnishing initial housing for refugees. But the process still carries risk, especially for those hoping to find their footing in America.
“It’s very difficult, I think, for the U.S. government or the Canadian government to know just the nature of the group that is proposing to sponsor,” Beers says. “How resilient are they? How unified? How long of a commitment are they really ready to make? Or even, what kind of social environment is this person or family going to walk into? That’s really tough to vet without home visits and things like that.”
To address potential problems with fit and support levels between refugees and sponsors, the consortium managing the program will conduct “several” check-ins with both the sponsors and refugees to “review whether refugees are receiving the required core services,” and refugees will be allowed to anonymously contact someone in the consortium to report any concerns or issues, a State Department spokesperson tells U.S. News on background.
Additionally, the representative said, the consortium would be empowered to take action – including possible reassignment – to remedy any situation where refugees aren’t receiving “appropriate” support from sponsors.
The extent to which American communities are willing and able to embrace refugees for the long and short term remains to be seen, says Theresa Cardinal Brown, the managing director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that promotes bipartisanship
“The reality is that it takes more than 90 days for a refugee or refugee family to kind of really get on their feet,” she says. “What I hope doesn’t happen, and I kind of think we need to see, is that if people say, ‘well, I committed to 90 days, at the end of that time, I’m done,’ and people are kind of left on their own at that point. But the point of Welcome Corps is hopefully that you do have this group of nongovernmental organizations and others who will assist the sponsors to ensure that it’s not just ‘90 days, bye.’”
“In the communities in Canada, there’s just much more community support for immigrant integration. We don’t have that,” she adds. “They have a much more extensive network that supports the individual sponsoring refugees.”
Beers says he remains optimistic because Americans signing up for the program are likely “doing this because they believe in the cause.” And partly because of that, he’s hopeful that sponsors will be committed to provide support “for probably a good deal longer than that minimum of 90 days.”
Dyck, meanwhile, says he’s excited to see how Welcome Corps progresses as the U.S. embraces part of his country’s resettlement model.
“This is an important place that they’re moving into,” Dyck says, referring to the U.S. “I mean, it’s an international movement now.”
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