The U.S. is copying Canada's private refugee sponsorship program, even as groups here pull out

CBC Radio

Padraig Moran · CBC Radio · Posted: Feb 02, 2023

The U.S. is launching a private refugee sponsorship program that has been closely modelled on Canada's, even as the program in this country faces criticism for long delays and cumbersome bureaucracy.

The new program, called Welcome Corps, was announced by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken last month. He said it would "harness the generosity and goodwill of American citizens" willing to take on the financial and logistical needs for settling newcomers into their communities.

One advocate south of the border hopes it will help to shore up resettlement efforts, after targets were slashed significantly during the tenure of former U.S. president Donald Trump. 

"The refugee resettlement system was so eviscerated under the previous administration, so we're trying to build it back," said Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), a non-profit refugee resettlement program in Silver Spring, Md.

"Private sponsorship is one way to increase our capacity," he told The Current's Matt Galloway. 

Their relationship began in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. The Chau's were Vietnamese "boat people." Ron and Clara Wiebe were some of the Manitoba Mennonites who helped them start a new life in Canada, thanks to a ground-breaking private sponsorship program that turns 40 on March 5.

Former U.S. president Donald Trump set the cap on accepting refugees to a 40-year low of 15,000 for the fiscal year 2021, citing pandemic concerns. When he took office, U.S. President Joe Biden revised that target to 62,500. His administration aims to resettle 125,000 refugees in 2023 — though just over 25,000 were resettled out of a similar target in 2022.

The Welcome Corps program runs alongside existing government-funded programs to resettle refugees. It aims to begin resettling refugees by April, and hopes to recruit 10,000 Americans to sponsor at least 5,000 refugees in its first year. It stipulates that sponsors raise at least $2,275 US, and commit to 90 days of guidance, with the aim of connecting refugees to local organizations that can offer support beyond that. 

It's closely modelled on an initiative that began in Canada in 1979, to facilitate the arrival of Vietnamese refugees. According to figures from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), the program brought more than 327,000 refugees to Canada between 1979 and 2020; using a model that has been copied by countries the world over. 

In a statement to the Canadian Press, assistant U.S. secretary of state for population, refugees, and migration Julieta Valls Noyes said that the U.S. is "grateful to the government of Canada for sharing details about their program," and appreciated Canada's "support in allowing us to learn from their program."

'We've always envied Canada'

Brian Dyck has advised several U.S. organizations who want to participate in the new program, helping them to look at Canada's model as a starting point. 

"What we did at the beginning is very much look at material that had been developed here in Canada and just adapted it a little bit," said Dyck, the national migration and resettlement program co-ordinator for Mennonite Central Committee Canada.

Dyck said Canada's program performs a specific role within the wider refugee resettlement system, and has proven an effective tool when a particular refugee crisis captures public attention, such as in Syria, Afghanistan or Ukraine. It can also be useful in efforts to reunite families, in cases where refugees have settled in Canada but their loved ones are still displaced elsewhere, he said.

Private sponsorship "allows more players to be involved, and that really strengthens, I think, the whole system," he said.

Hetfield said his organization, HIAS, is currently limited to resettling refugees with 25 specific family service agencies across the U.S., but Welcome Corps will allow them to work with any group willing and able to provide resettlement support. 

"We've always envied Canada for having this alternative way to welcome refugees … we're really glad that the United States is now embracing it," Hetfield said.

He thinks U.S. organizations can learn from the Canadian model, in particular in making sure that appropriate boundaries are set, and that sponsors are facilitating "independence and self-reliance," he said.

Canada's program tied up in red tape: senator

Ratna Omidvar, an independent senator for Ontario who has been involved in helping refugees for many years, said it's "a real relief" to see the U.S. re-engage with resettlement efforts.

But she pointed out that the Canadian program requires much higher fundraising amounts, and a commitment of at least a year from sponsors. 

"I think the ambition and the scope and scale is different, but I'm going to be hopeful and say this is a step in the right direction," she said.

Omidvar was part of a group of 17 people who sponsored a Syrian family of 12 to come to Canada in 2016. That family has since found jobs, bought their own home, and have all become Canadian citizens, she said. 

But despite success stories like this, Omidvar said Canada's program has become "overly clunky" and tied down with red tape.

"There's a very, very long wait between finding your refugee, applying for them, and waiting to get the approval for them to travel," she said.

Interest in Canada's program has increased significantly in recent years, fuelled by a desire to help refugees escape conflicts like Syria's civil war. As a result, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) introduced new rules, including checks and balances to ensure sponsorship groups are meeting the needs of new arrivals.

But the change has resulted in some organizations pulling out of the sponsorship program, citing time constraints and cumbersome additional paperwork.

IRCC has also faced criticism for limited spots and long processing times, particularly in cases of reuniting families. In a statement to CBC last month, IRCC blamed delays on the fact that demand is higher than available spaces. 

A new type of nation building

Omidvar said she understands the need for transparency, accountability and risk assessment in the resettlement process — but she thinks some protocols have become "impregnable" obstacles. 

"If there is one hope I have, it's that we start taking a look at what must be; and what can be used at discretion; and what should be put aside completely," she said. 

Despite the delays, Omidvar thinks Canada's private sponsorship program is an important focal point in how Canadians come together, "with all our differences, with all our diversities."

"It sort of creates the glue that brings the emotional distances between people together, not just refugees and sponsors, but sponsors and sponsors," she said. 

"I think this has become a new way, a new approach to nation building."