Americans might be able to bring a refugee to the U.S. on their own dime if talks between the Obama administration and the nation’s leading refugee advocacy group come to fruition.
The State Department is considering a pilot program that would let citizens sponsor a refugee from their country of choice by paying for airfare, housing, clothing, food and other resettlement costs. Conversations began in July and are expected to continue in the coming year, according to Naomi Steinberg, director of the Refugee Council USA.
The program, modeled after a similar one in Canada, is designed to crack open new sources of funding as growing anti-refugee sentiment in Congress threatens to cut resettlement programs.
“It puts Americans in the driver’s seat,” said Matthew La Corte, policy analyst at the Niskanen Center, a Washington-based libertarian think tank that was an early supporter of the program. “It allows them to say, ‘I have a spare bedroom. I was thinking of buying a new car, but I’ll instead take that $10,000 and put it toward bringing a Syrian refugee over.’”
Such a program would mark one of the biggest structural changes to U.S. refugee policy in three decades and would allow Barack Obama or future presidents to skirt opposition by shifting financial responsibility to everyday Americans. Civil war in Syria, conflict in Africa and more open European borders have combined to displace more than 65 million people worldwide, the deepest refugee crisis since World War II.
About a million people entered Germany last year, and Prime Minister Angela Merkel has said other European countries must do their part. The U.S. admitted 85,000 refugees in fiscal 2016, and only about 12,600 from Syria.
Obama’s announcement last month that America would accept 110,000 refugees from around the world in 2017, a 30 percent increase over this year, was met with fierce opposition by Republican lawmakers. More than half of U.S. governors have called for a ban on Syrian refugees until stricter national security-screening is put in place, and Congress has introduced bills that would restrict funding. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has characterized Syrian refugees as “Trojan horses” for terrorism.
“The American people do not support these radical plans, which amount to a complete betrayal from their leaders in Washington,” Sen. Jeff Sessions, who has been one of the most vocal opponents of resettlement policies, said in a statement last month. The Alabama Republican is a key adviser to Trump.
Away from the political arena, the private sector is becoming increasingly involved. Last month, billionaire George Soros, a major funder of liberal causes, announced he would spend as much as $500 million to help refugees globally. The White House announced recently that 51 companies, including Airbnb, Goldman Sachs, Ikea and United Parcel Service, have pledged money or services to help refugees.
The private sponsorship plan under discussion mimics a decades-old program in Canada that allows private individuals or groups to provide “emotional and financial support” to refugees for a period usually one year in length. Since November 2015, Canada has taken in about 31,000 Syrians, of whom 11,700 were privately sponsored, according to the nation’s government.
Under current law, the president can determine the number of refugees allowed each year. The State Department works with the United Nations and other agencies to screen refugees abroad, which can take two years. Advocacy groups and state agencies administer cash assistance, job training, housing and other aid.
The U.S. briefly tested a private sponsorship program in the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan used it to admit roughly 16,000 refugees, primarily Soviet Jews and Cubans. The program was ended in the early 1990s because of rising costs, according to La Corte, from the Niskanen Center.
For fiscal 2016, Congress appropriated $3.1 billion for refugee and migration assistance programs, the same level as two years before, according to figures from the agency.
Private sponsorship “is a good option in terms of increasing numbers without increasing budget outlays,” said Kevin Appleby, senior director of international migration policy at the Center for Migration Studies in New York.
Refugee Council USA and the state department began talks about private sponsorship this summer, according to Steinberg, director at the Washington-based agency, which is an umbrella group for 22 organizations.
The State Department plans to work on the issue “in the year to come,” according to a statement from Mark Storella, a deputy assistant secretary.
“We are deeply impressed with what Canada has been able to achieve in welcoming refugees, especially in the past year,” Storella said. “We have been learning a great deal from our Canadian colleagues and are eager to benefit from some of their lessons learned.”
Before any program is launched, critical points must be addressed, Steinberg said. The group wants to ensure that sponsorship does not replace existing government programs.
“The only private resettlement program that we could support would be one that increases the number of refugees who arrive in the U.S., while at the same time maintaining and even strengthening the U.S. government commitments,” Steinberg said.
Sponsorship is gaining early support from some who have been critical of existing programs.
“I would certainly be open to considering a program partnering refugees with U.S. sponsors — especially if it would cut down on the financial burden for American taxpayers,” Sen. David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican who has called for stronger vetting, said in a statement. “The administration needs to significantly increase its verification safeguards before we open anything up further.”
In a November 2015 Gallup Poll, just 37 percent of those surveyed said they approved of U.S. plans to take in at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in fiscal 2016.
Still, backers hope they’ll be able to tap into a well of public support they say has only grown since last year when a viral image showed the body of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee, drowned on a Turkish beach.
“Unlike some of the politicians that have been anti-refugee, we’ve actually seen that communities and individuals across the country have been incredibly responsive to the global refugee crisis,” said Jennifer Quigley, advocacy strategist for Human Rights First, a New York City nonprofit. “They say, ‘I want to be able to help a refugee and help them achieve the American dream.’”