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Americans should be able to sponsor refugees who can stay permanently

The U.S. does too little for too few, but Canada has a program worth adopting and improving

Ukrainian refugees and their children at a border crossing in Medyka, Poland, on March 18. (Bloomberg News)
6 min

The war in Ukraine has created one of the biggest refugee crises since World War II, with about 7 million people fleeing the country. While some have since returned, and some have settled elsewhere in Europe, there are still many in need of a permanent haven. Unfortunately, the American refugee system is proving to be of comparatively little help.

Even before President Donald Trump, the refugee resettlement process was slow and cumbersome, but Trump made things much worse by slashing the annual refugee quotas to a low of 18,000 for fiscal 2020 and 15,000 for fiscal 2021, before Biden increased it, which in turn led many resettlement organizations to shut down or scale back. President Biden raised the 2021 cap to 62,500 in May of that year — and set a cap of 125,000 for 2022 — but has not been able to restore the resettlement infrastructure that Trump undercut. As a result, the higher quotas remain largely unfilled, with a record-low 11,411 refugees admitted in 2021, even though many more would love to come. Even in the current fiscal year, the administration expects to fall far short of its target, Axios reports.

The Biden administration has tried to ease the logjam — at least for Ukrainian victims of Russian aggression — by creating the Uniting for Ukraine program, under which private citizens can sponsor Ukrainian refugees. Ukrainians wishing to enter must first get a U.S.-citizen sponsor, who has to prove that they can financially support the new arrival for two years; they must also pass certain health and security checks. The Ukrainians can seek permission to work but may stay for only two years. U.S. sponsors have filed applications on behalf of some 60,000 Ukrainians under this policy. The administration has pledged to help at least 100,000 Ukrainians relocate overall.

The war in Ukraine is on track to be among modern history’s bloodiest

The program is a decent start, but it could be improved by adapting a similar, better-run Canadian program.

Since 1979 — inspired by the massive numbers of people displaced by the Vietnam War and its aftermath — Canada’s Private Sponsorship of Refugees program has allowed ordinary people and community groups to support refugees financially and otherwise for 12 months (or until the refugee is self-sufficient, whichever comes first). Sponsors can include private citizens working together (a “Group of Five”) or a group that holds a sponsorship agreement with the Canadian government, such as a religious institution or cultural organization. In an important contrast with the U.S. program, the refugees can stay permanently after the sponsorship period, and the program is not limited to people from specific nations. The combination of monetary assistance with more personal support, such as helping refugees find language classes or sign their children up for schools, gives the refugees a chance to hit the ground running. The recipients of private aid must be a refugee as defined by the United Nations (or according to a few other criteria). In 2022, Canada’s target number for privately sponsored refugees is 31,255, while the goal for government-sponsored refugees is 19,790. Relative to Canada’s population size — just over a tenth that of the United States — these figures are several times higher per capita than Biden’s unmet quota of 125,000.

Privately sponsored refugees tend to be better-educated than government-assisted refugees, but even after controlling for such variables, a recent Canadian study found that those privately sponsored had higher employment rates and earnings than government-sponsored ones.

The Canadian program is superior to America’s Uniting for Ukraine in part because it offers refugees a permanent solution. How many Ukrainians admitted under the U.S. program will be able to go home in two years? The Russia-Ukraine war shows little sign of ending, and even if it was over tomorrow, many Ukrainians might be unable to return to destroyed cities and houses. Past refugee crises, such as those triggered by the Syrian civil war, make clear that many people forced to flee war zones need permanent new homes.

Opening sponsored resettlement to people facing a multitude of dangers across the globe, as Canada does, makes more sense than a temporary program targeting one nationality. To take just one example, the United States should open its doors to Russians fleeing the intensifying oppression of Vladimir Putin’s regime. We should welcome people fleeing war and repression, regardless of race, ethnicity or nationality.

Creating a program more like Canada’s could help the United States meet the moral imperative of helping Ukrainians and other refugees (permanently, not just temporarily). It would also help advance American economic and strategic interests. Studies find that migrants bolster the U.S. economy and disproportionately contribute to scientific and technological innovation, and that even refugees are net contributors to the public treasury. In addition, accepting them deprives hostile governments of valuable human resources and bolsters our position in the international war of ideas against Putin and other authoritarians. Refugees from allied nations, like Ukraine, can also help their countries of origin by sending remittances back home and by fostering political liberalization; studies indicate that having a diaspora in advanced liberal democracies often has a liberalizing effect on countries of origin. Given all these advantages, we contend that there should be no cap on the number of privately sponsored refugees — or, if political factors demand one, that the cap should be very generous.

Adopting a version of the Canadian system could also save taxpayer money. Private Canadian sponsors often spend $28,000 or more to support refugees and their families during that first crucial year (roughly what the government spends on refugees that it assists). The sponsored refugees are not eligible for social assistance during the sponsorship period, unless the sponsor breaks their agreement, in which case the government may demand reimbursement from the sponsoring group.

The Canadian private sponsorship system does have some flaws. Limiting the program, as Canada does in some cases, to people who meet the strict definition of refugee, as established by the United Nations, is arguably too onerous. The U.N. definition covers only those whose “life or freedom would be threatened on account of [their] race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” Many people fleeing war, as opposed to repression based on race or religion — including many Ukrainian migrants today — don’t fit these parameters. The United States would do well to omit such limitations.

Private refugee resettlement would allow the United States to augment its damaged refugee system, thereby helping many more people, saving taxpayer money, and advancing U.S. strategic and economic interests. The United States should learn from Canada’s example — and improve on it.