WASHINGTON — The Department of State announced a new program Thursday that will allow groups of American citizens to sponsor refugees looking to resettle in the United States.

The program will significantly restructure the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, which in the past has given money to a group of nonprofit organizations that handle refugee resettlement. 

The latest program, dubbed the Welcome Corps, will allow groups of five or more citizens to join up to sponsor refugees. The groups will have to raise at least $2,275 per refugee and pass background checks, as well as take other steps.

“The Welcome Corps is the boldest innovation in refugee resettlement in four decades,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a press statement released Thursday morning.

Julieta Valls Noyes, assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, acknowledged that many Americans could meet the financial threshold to sponsor refugees individually rather than as a group. But the five-person threshold reflects the department’s view that refugees are more likely to be successful with a broader support network, she said. 

“It’s not about money,” Noyes said during a State Department press briefing Thursday afternoon. “It’s about commitment. It’s about the community. It’s about bringing people together and forming a group so that the refugees have more than one person that they can turn to and can work with.”

The structure of the Welcome Corps mirrors that of the Sponsor Circle Program for Afghans, which allowed groups of five or more to sponsor refugees fleeing Afghanistan after the Taliban regained control of the country in 2021. Ukrainian refugees seeking to resettle in the U.S. following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine have also been able to seek temporary parole with the help of sponsors based in the U.S. under the Department of Homeland Security’s Uniting for Ukraine program.

Most recently, the Biden administration announced a new parole program to allow up to 30,000 migrants from Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti and Venezuela with U.S.-based sponsors to enter the country each month, hoping to deal with a surge of migration at the southern border.

Unlike those initiatives, which only provide refugees from specific countries with temporary parole, the broader Welcome Corps aims to help refugees permanently resettle in the U.S. and integrate fully into their new communities.

Drawing on those limited programs, the Welcome Corps aims to expand the capacity of the refugee program, Blinken said in a release. The new initiative also draws on a similar program in Canada that has allowed Canadians to sponsor refugees for over 40 years, a senior State Department official said Thursday.

Once a group completes a welcome plan and is approved, it will be responsible for providing the refugee with “essential assistance” for 90 days, including helping refugees find housing, employment, health care and education.

The initiative also fulfills an executive order President Joe Biden signed in February 2021 to establish a private refugee sponsorship program. The administration solicited partnership proposals for a pilot program in May 2022.

Since taking office, Biden has struggled to revamp refugee resettlement efforts following a significant rollback of the refugee program under former President Donald Trump. In fiscal year 2022, the Biden administration fell short of its goal for refugee resettlement, filling fewer than 26,000 of the 125,000 available spots.

The U.S. remains on track to miss its 125,000-person goal once again, welcoming only 6,750 refugees in the first quarter of the new fiscal year that ends in September, but the new program may help fill many of the slots.

The State Department aims to identify 10,000 sponsors and welcome at least 5,000 refugees in its first year, with the first refugees under the new program set to arrive as early as April. 

Noyes said the early numbers are a “lagging indicator,” noting that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services conducted over 20,000 interviews of refugees overseas in the first fiscal quarter, and that the government expects many of those refugees to arrive in the coming months.

The department is pursuing multiple avenues to streamline the resettlement of refugees, including expanding referrals from nongovernmental organizations, hiring more staff and looking to clear out the current backlog of cases, she added.

“The launch of the Welcome Corps is one initiative, but we’re doing a lot of work with our traditional resettlement agency partners to try and speed up processing while maintaining the integrity and the security of the program and not in any way changing the requirements,” Noyes said.

The announcement was met with widespread support from activists, including more than 200 organizations that endorsed the program Thursday.

Elizabeth Foydel, the private sponsorship program director at the International Refugee Assistance Project, said she was excited that the new program allows individual Americans to step up and provides a long-term solution for refugees awaiting resettlement.

“Given the kind of interest that we’ve seen, I think that Americans have been really wanting an opportunity to engage in this very direct, tangible way for a long time,” Foydel said. “So to have a really formal opportunity, where they know that they’re going to receive the support and the training that they need to do it, I think is going to enable a lot of people to do that.”

Her group is one of the organizations participating in the consortium of nonprofits partnering with the State Department to support and guide private sponsors and refugees.

The State Dept. program will be rolled out in two phases, with the focus in the first half of 2023 remaining on matching sponsors with refugees who have already been approved for resettlement. Many of the first refugees to be welcomed will be those from Sub-Saharan Africa who have been waiting for resettlement for multiple years.

In the second phase, sponsors will have the option of referring refugees they intend to support to the program.

Ilya Somin, a law professor at George Mason University and a long-time advocate of private refugee sponsorship programs, said he sees the ability to select refugees to participate in the program as an important step. However, Somin said he believes more can be done to improve the refugee resettlement system.

“I think the primary ways to improve this program would be to first, make the pipeline faster, and second – and this latter part would require statutory change – expanding the definition of who can qualify as a refugee,” he said.

Somin, who sponsored a Ukrainian refugee family through Uniting for Ukraine, said that program was “great by the admittedly low standards of U.S. federal government bureaucracy,” but that the lack of speed and efficiency in the processing of refugees is one area for improvement in the system.