By Ted Hesson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Groups of Americans will be able to directly sponsor refugees for resettlement in the United States under a new program announced on Thursday, a major shift that could bolster admissions and reduce government costs.
Under the U.S. State Department program, which will be called the Welcome Corps, groups of at least five people will be expected to raise a minimum of $2,275 per sponsored refugee to support them with housing and other basic needs for the first three months they are in the country.
The sponsor groups, open to U.S. citizens or permanent residents, will also be required to pass background checks and create a support plan, according to a related website.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the sponsorship program "the boldest innovation in refugee resettlement" since the start of the U.S. program in 1980, saying religious groups, veterans, businesses and universities, among others, could participate.
The program will aim to find 10,000 U.S. sponsors for 5,000 refugees in fiscal year 2023, which ends on Sept. 30, as each group could support multiple arrivals, the State Department said. Reuters first reported the launch of the program on Wednesday.
The individual sponsorship program for refugees - similar to a model used in Canada - is part of a broader effort by U.S. President Joe Biden, a Democrat, to provide opportunities for Americans to support foreigners seeking protection.
The administration sees the new model as a way to generate more support for refugees, after Republican former President Donald Trump portrayed them as a security threat and slashed admissions, which have yet to fully rebound.
Biden has faced pressure from Republicans over his approach to border security, with a record number of migrants attempting to cross illegally from Mexico. But the Welcome Corps is unlikely to have any near-term effect on the border, as refugees enter through a long application process from abroad, often from conflict zones.
To address the rising numbers of arriving migrants, Biden has turned to other forms of sponsorship. Earlier this month, the administration rolled out a humanitarian entry program that allows up to 30,000 migrants per month from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela to enter via "parole" if they have U.S. sponsors and travel by air.
The administration also used parole to admit Afghans and Ukrainians fleeing those nations and piloted sponsor programs to support them.
The Welcome Corps program will bring in refugees through the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program, which takes referrals from the United Nations and U.S. embassies.
Biden set a cap of 125,000 refugee admissions this fiscal year, which began on Oct. 1, 2022, but only 6,750 arrived from October-December, according to program data, a pace that would have them falling far below the annual goal.
While the government has struggled to boost arrivals to pre-Trump levels, Julieta Valls Noyes, a top State Department official, said some 20,000 refugee interviews have been conducted abroad in the past three months and that she expects they could arrive later this year.
Refugees currently entering the United States are assisted by nine U.S. resettlement agencies that rely on government funding. Some of the agencies are working as part of a consortium of groups that will support the Welcome Corps.
During the first six months of the new initiative, the State Department will connect sponsors with refugees whose cases are already approved, the department said. At some point in mid-2023, U.S. sponsors will be able to refer refugee cases to the department for possible resettlement.
Robert Law, a former Trump immigration official now with the Trump-aligned America First Policy Institute, said Congress should ensure refugees are adequately vetted and that sponsors are actually covering costs. Sponsors can raise above and beyond the minimum amount if they are able.
"Privatization of refugee resettlement in theory takes U.S. taxpayers off the hook," he said. "But proper guardrails are needed to ensure sponsors are thoroughly vetted and have sufficient means to financially support the refugee."
(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington; Editing by Mica Rosenberg Rosalba O'Brien, Howard Goller and Diane Craft)