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Welcome Corps, the newest idea in refugee resettlement, has deep roots

The new program might strengthen personal connections to refugees, but history shows there are potential downsides, as well

Abdisellam Hassen Ahmed, a Somali refugee, walks with his wife, Nimo Hashi, and 2-year-old daughter, Taslim, at Salt Lake City International Airport in 2017. (Rick Bowmer/AP)
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On Jan. 19, the State Department announced the launch of the “Welcome Corps,” the newest change to the U.S. refugee resettlement program. Through the Welcome Corps initiative, groups of private citizens will be able to directly sponsor refugees who have been cleared for resettlement by the State Department for the first time since 1980. Sponsors will need to raise funds and help refugees locate housing, education, health care and employment. With the 43rd anniversary of the U.S. Refugee Act coming up on March 17, the Welcome Corps is being billed as “the boldest innovation in refugee resettlement in four decades.”

Currently, refugees are resettled by 10 nonprofit “voluntary agencies” (VOLAGs) working with the State Department. While these VOLAGs will continue their work through the Reception & Placement Program, the new Welcome Corps model will also allow private citizens to take on direct fundraising and case management responsibilities, without the aid of the VOLAGs that have been organizing this work for decades.

Yet private sponsorship of refugees is not new. Religious groups in the United States have welcomed refugees and helped them integrate since long before the modern resettlement program was established by the 1980 Refugee Act. Though the Welcome Corps initiative builds on this history, the program also represents a significant departure from the faith-based frameworks that underpinned the success of past sponsorship efforts. While proponents of the new program celebrate this change as an opportunity to expand resettlement capacity and leverage untapped community resources, the history of private refugee sponsorship also can inform future initiatives by sounding a note of caution about potential pitfalls.

Before the First World War, religious groups in the United States offered aid to immigrants and refugees. Recalling their own immigrant roots, many communities helped newcomers of the same national or religious background. Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, for example, traces its roots to 1865, when a local church took in four Swedish Lutheran children orphaned by the death of their immigrant parents. Catholic parishes across the country have long welcomed Catholic migrants from Europe and later from Latin America. Catholic Charities began its work in 1910, motivated partly by the challenges of urban poverty, exploitative labor practices and unsafe living conditions that faced new migrants in America’s growing urban centers, from New York to Chicago to Kansas City.

In the mid-20th century, American religious communities began to extend their humanitarian concerns beyond the nation’s borders. In the aftermath of the world wars, denominational bodies representing Jewish, Catholic and Protestant faith traditions rallied around relief and resettlement efforts for displaced Europeans. During this period, refugees’ experiences were determined by the resources and effectiveness of the communities that sponsored them. Nationwide denominational bodies coordinated efforts, but local congregations assumed the cost and responsibility for settling new arrivals. Thus, before the U.N. Refugee Convention of 1951 formalized international protections for displaced people and established the legal definition of “refugee,” and without any formal federal resettlement program, American religious communities sponsored almost 2 million refugees in this era.

The following decades built on the success of early faith-led efforts. The federal government began providing funding for resettlement beginning in the 1960s, so that the financial burden did not fall entirely on local communities. With federal approval, the resettling responsibilities of denominational agencies grew, giving rise to religiously affiliated VOLAGs. They coordinated between the federal government and congregations across the United States, which continued to welcome refugees at the local level.

Religious sponsors were primarily driven by a combination of religious goodwill, anti-communist ideology and in some cases a desire to proselytize. While some Christian groups demonstrated a preference for sponsoring their own coreligionists over others, the aftermath of the Vietnam War sparked broader interest in sponsoring all refugees of Southeast Asian origin.

Although congregational sponsorship of refugees increased throughout the mid-1970s, the popularity of resettlement began to wane in the early 1980s as a result of economic recession and shifting public opinion, driven in part by “compassion fatigue” and the greater cultural and racial diversity of incoming refugees. In addition, the taxing realities of refugee sponsorship did not always align with expectations — historians point to frustration and disappointment among certain religious sponsors, as some perceived refugees as “less grateful” than expected or uninterested in conversion to Christianity. By 1982, Time magazine declared that the United States had “No More Room for Refugees.”

The 1980s brought other changes to U.S. resettlement, revolutionizing the relationship between religious communities and the federal resettlement program. The 1980 Refugee Act ushered in a new process and standardized the vetting, funding and resettlement of refugees through formal partnership with the national VOLAGs.

There are now 10 VOLAGs in total, seven of which are religiously affiliated. The imposition of federal funding requirements and professionalization of these organizations pressured them to move away from explicitly religious services and toward a more standardized, largely secular, service-delivery model. Despite this change, many VOLAGs and their local resettlement agencies have continued to engage local congregations and community members in a range of “co-sponsorship” or “good neighbor” programs to provide support beyond the initial resettlement services provided at arrival.

With the rollout of the Welcome Corps, refugees will continue to be vetted by the federal government, but the program returns to a model in which local communities take on resettlement responsibility. In the second phase of the program, beginning in mid-2023, Welcome Corps participants will also be able to identify specific refugees they would like to sponsor. The program connects communities to refugees directly, which strengthens personal connections in a way that harks back to the early work of Christian and Jewish congregations that assisted people of the same faith. In a more diverse American setting, it also provides opportunities for minority religious communities, such as Muslim or Buddhist communities, to provide support in culturally and linguistically competent ways.

The history of private refugee sponsorship also indicates that local communities could be somewhat choosy about who they help. Private groups can also experience compassion fatigue, making resettlement activities in the Welcome Corps program less predictable and reliable, especially since this specific program will not involve the VOLAGs with their experienced and professional resettlement coordinators. Some communities may view refugee resettlement as an opportunity to proselytize, which is a problem for a federal program that ostensibly helps people of any religious background without discrimination.

The Welcome Corps program has the potential to bring new energy and resources to refugee resettlement in the United States, and it draws on American values of hospitality to and empathy for people in need. But program leaders, communities and potential sponsors should be attentive to possible downsides of the program, too. Whether through new community or existing VOLAG co-sponsorship models, Americans have multiple opportunities to embody welcoming values by supporting local refugee-resettlement efforts — helping to make good on our nation’s collective promise to provide refuge.