The State Department on Monday announced a "historic" new program to allow private American citizens to help Afghan refugees resettle in the U.S.
The Biden administration has brought over 65,000 Afghans to military bases across the country after its chaotic, unprecedented evacuation operations that ended 20 years of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan -- with plans to bring some 30,000 more in the next year.
But the refugee resettlement process has struggled to resettle those new arrivals after four years of former President Donald Trump's administration and its thousand cuts to the program, from slashing admissions to halting interviews to drying up funding.
Amid the spike in need, the State Department has authorized a new non-profit called Community Sponsorship Hub to vet and train groups of private Americans that apply to host an Afghan refugee in their community -- using support from their local community and organizations like Welcome.US, Airbnb, Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, and others.
This new program "harnesses this outpouring of support and enables individuals to become directly involved in the welcome and integration of our new neighbors," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement, and "showcases the powerful role that individuals can play in coming together to welcome and integrate Afghans into American society, reflecting our spirit of goodwill and generosity."
Since the refugee resettlement program was formalized in 1980, the U.S. government has partnered with nine resettlement agencies that have approximately 200 local affiliates across the country, helping refugees from around the world start life in a new community. With U.S. government funding, they provide initial services, from finding housing to buying groceries, enrolling children in school to seeking employment.
But now, ordinary Americans can join together to do the same thing within their own community. Groups of at least five adults apply together and have to complete background checks, fundraise at least $2,275 per refugee, pass a "knowledge check," and submit a detailed "welcome plan" for an Afghan refugee, according to the Community Sponsorship Hub.
Once they are vetted and certified, they will be matched with an Afghan refugee or refugee family that has chosen to be resettled through the program, as opposed to through a resettlement agency. Their support must cover the refugee's first 90 days in the community at a minimum.
After an "outpouring of support for Afghan refugees," the program is a "concrete way to translate this support into immediate opportunities to welcome more Afghans," said Sarah Krause, executive director of the Community Sponsorship Hub. "By offering opportunities to sponsor a family, this program will create enduring bonds between Afghans and the communities that welcome them."
Biden also authorized up to $976 million from the U.S. government's Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance Fund to support Afghan refugee resettlement on Friday -- a huge influx of funding that refugee advocates welcomed.
Refugee resettlement agencies have been largely supportive of the new program, with private sponsorship boosting capacity and "helping the American public directly engage with resettlement on a personal level," according to Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, one of the nine national agencies.
"With that said, it's imperative that it is implemented thoughtfully and with sufficient institutional support. We want to make sure that both refugees and the Americans who welcome them feel positioned for successful outcomes," added O'Mara Vignarajah.
Blinken said the State Department plans to launch a pilot program to expand the private sponsorship to other refugees next year.
Refugee admissions were deliberately slowed under Trump, who repeatedly set the lowest refugee caps in the program's 40-plus year history, cut staffing to support the program, and put in place new regulations that critics called onerous. Outside of Afghan evacuees, the U.S. admitted the lowest number of refugees last fiscal year, which ran Oct. 1, 2020, through this past September.
During the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden had vowed to change that and boost refugee admissions. But in April, he signed a memo that kept Trump's refugee cap of 15,000 -- the program's lowest -- only to then backtrack and raise it to 62,500 in May after outrage among Democrats and refugee advocates.
But those Trump-era efforts to dismantle the program not only led to this past fiscal year's small number, but they also now endanger Biden's promise to admit 125,000 refugees in the 2022 fiscal year, which runs through next Sept. 30.
While expanding resettlement to private sponsorship may help reach that target, refugee advocates have called for increased funding and reforms to boost the program's capacity.