On January 19, 2023, the Department of State (DOS) launched a new U.S. private refugee sponsorship program called the Welcome Corps, which will allow Americans to privately sponsor refugees through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). Despite a positive initial reaction–with thousands of potential sponsors expressing interest–– the program roll-out is plagued by largely unsubstantiated concerns that Welcome Corps refugee sponsorship is vulnerable to immigration fraud.

Before examining the validity of these claims, it’s helpful to understand how the Welcome Corps refugee sponsorship program will operate with the existing USRAP process. At present, refugees vetted through various security screening processes are sent to one of the ten authorized domestic resettlement agencies. These resettlement agencies work with the DOS to sponsor refugees approved through USRAP by providing them with reception and placement (R&P) support for the first three months. R&P support includes finding housing, employment, schools, and providing access to medical services and English language classes, amongst other resources. 

Welcome Corps is intended not to replace this existing support infrastructure, but to enhance it by increasing our capacity to welcome those in need.  Resettlement agencies and private sponsor groups identified by Welcome Corps will provide R&P services and work together to reach the annual presidential determination — the FY2023 is 125,000 refugee arrivals. The goal for the Welcome Corps in 2023 is for 10,000 Americans to privately sponsor at least 5,000 refugees. 

Welcome Corps will be launched in two phases, the first of which is private sponsor groups matching with refugees whose cases are already in the USRAP pipeline and approved for resettlement. 

Some critics have suggested that the vetting process is being expedited, therefore hindering the processes’ thoroughness. This is patently false. The Welcome Corps website states: “Privately sponsored refugees will not be expedited or receive preferential treatment in completing USRAP processing requirements.” Privately sponsored refugee applicants must still go through the same USRAP pipeline as everyone else. Refugees are expected to arrive one to two months after a private sponsor group application is accepted because they have already been vetted through an extensive process. Most Welcome Corps refugees have likely been waiting years to travel. 

During the second stage, to be launched mid-year, private sponsors can identify refugees for referral to the USRAP. Only three referral pathways (P1, P2, and P3) are available for a refugee to access USRAP. Private sponsorship will add a fourth referral pathway (P4). P4 referral is a much-needed opportunity for refugees barred from accessing USRAP through the existing pathways. The criteria for P4 referral are forthcoming, but the vetting process will be the same. 

P4 refugee referrals must still undergo a thorough refugee eligibility determination interview with a specially trained USCIS Refugee Officer. USCIS Refugee Officers conduct detailed interviews with applicants to decide if their case meets the legal definition of a refugee. The U.S. legal definition of a refugee is highly specific; one must prove they cannot return home for fear of their life due to persecution on one of five enumerated grounds. These include race, religion, nationality, political opinion, and membership in a particular social group. 

Concern has also been expressed about the quality of protections against abuse and fraud meant to ensure Welcome Corps refugee sponsors are well-vetted. Safeguards have been built into the private sponsor group application process to screen for potential bad actors. Every member applying to be a part of a private sponsor group must pass a background check. Furthermore, at least one group member must attend training sessions that cover private sponsor group responsibilities and address topics such as cultural and religious sensitivity. Welcome Corps teams must submit a detailed Welcome Plan covering how essential support will be delivered during a refugee’s first 90 days. Private sponsor groups must complete 30-day, 90-day, and six and 12-month reports to ensure accountability. Private sponsors will only communicate with refugees in the first phase of Welcome Corps once they arrive in the U.S. 

Regarding immigration fraud in the Welcome Corps program, the biggest — and arguably only legitimate — concern is scammers preying on refugees overseas who offer “access” to Welcome Corps in exchange for payment. The Welcome Corps website alerts refugee applicants that they should never pay, work for, or relocate near anyone to access the program — access to the refugee admissions program is free for all refugees. 

The website warns refugees to beware of anyone claiming to be a private sponsor who can expedite the process or demands an applicant pay money or relocate to another country or location to access Welcome Corps. Information on prospective private sponsors will be communicated to refugee applicants by the nearest Resettlement Support Center.

Several recent humanitarian programs launched by the U.S. have been subject to similar exploitation and scammers. The humanitarian parole program for Venezuelans, Cubans, Haitians, and Nicaraguans — which DHS, not DOS, runs — has seen scammers targeting prospective applicants on Facebook and Instagram. Some have coerced applicants into paying sponsorship fees only to provide applicants with false travel documents and then block them from future communication on social media. In an immigration fraud scheme called “notario fraud”, a scammer poses as a lawyer who offers to assist asylees. All of this has raised concerns among lawyers who lamented they could find no laws “prohibiting people from charging money from immigrants seeking sponsors.” 

The Uniting for Ukraine program also experienced similar attempts at exploiting refugees. The U.S. government responded by publishing warnings about such scams and how to detect them. Still, it is not uncommon for programs providing vital and lifesaving humanitarian support to be targeted for exploitation, so it is imperative that individuals report scammers preying on families and individuals in need of safety. USCIS lists common scams in various programs and how you can report them. Welcome Corps lists the following email to report instances of fraud and scammers: fraud@welcomecorps.org.

As with all new efforts, it is important to address the valid concerns about processing and to expose nefarious efforts to undermine the Welcome Corps program with immigration fraud claims. Since its launch, concerns that ineligible applicants may successfully defraud the vetting processes have been widely unsubstantiated. It is, however, imperative that we continue tamping down scams targeting vulnerable refugees seeking to apply for the Welcome Corps and other humanitarian programs.