In January 2023, the U.S. joined other nations in providing permanent pathways to safety for refugees through private sponsorship by launching the Welcome Corps program. Private sponsorship programs are critical for improving the global refugee resettlement infrastructure because they directly connect established communities with resettled refugees from the onset, creating mutually beneficial relationships and helping refugees get acquainted with the U.S. faster. Here, we explore why matching programs might best help refugees access higher-skilled work and capitalize on this lesson from Canada to strengthen the U.S. Welcome Corps model.

In addition to helping refugee newcomers access housing, schools, and medical services, private sponsor groups are responsible for assisting newcomers with finding jobs. Access to safe, stable, well-paying jobs that match a refugee’s skill set is crucial to fast-tracking economic self-sufficiency, a crucial factor for successful integration into their new country. Still, according to the most recent estimates, 36.2% of refugees in the U.S. are underemployed. This number includes 13.6% of refugees in the healthcare and social assistance industry who are underemployed. (This is an especially grim statistic given the critical shortages in health care workers amongst other skilled occupations.) 

Recent research from Canada demonstrates private sponsorship’s positive impact in improving access to employment that matches a refugee’s skillset. As the research shows, refugees matched with private sponsor groups are more likely to land higher-skilled jobs. The data was based on a participant survey of 2,000 Syrians who came to Canada through one of three resettlement pathways. 

While matching programs demonstrate the highest potential for helping refugees access and fill skilled jobs, there are many challenges to growing these programs as viable protection pathways. As the U.S. strives to build out the Welcome Corps, we can learn how to create a robust and inclusive private sponsorship program from Canada’s example. The key lies in incorporating elements into private sponsorship programs that strengthen bridging social capital through networks of informal relationships with people outside one’s cultural community. 

Overview of Canadian refugee resettlement pathways

Canada has had a private sponsorship program in place for years, and most resettled refugees in Canada are privately sponsored. Canadian refugee resettlement has three admissions pathways: the Government Assisted Refugee (GAR) program, the Blended Visa Office Referred (BVOR) program, and the Private Sponsorship of Refugees (PSR) program. The GAR program, where government-funded NGOs support and assist refugee arrivals in their first year, is equivalent to the standard U.S. Reception and Placement (R&P) program.

The BVOR and PSR programs are two iterations of private refugee sponsorship that differ based on how refugees are assigned to private sponsor groups. In the BVOR program, sponsor groups are matched with refugees identified by a referral organization, like the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR). In the PSR program, sponsor groups identify and refer a refugee for resettlement. For comparison, the USRAP equivalent of the Canadian BVOR program is Phase 1 of Welcome Corps, which was launched in January of this year. Later this year, the Department of State is expected to launch Phase 2 of Welcome Corps, called “naming,” which is equivalent to the Canadian PSR program. 

Between January 2015 and August 2023, Canada’s GAR program sponsored 112,000 arrivals, the BVOR program sponsored 9,000, and the PSR program sponsored 135,000 refugee arrivals. 

The BVOR program is the smallest, yet refugees coming through it are 11% more likely to land a higher-skilled job than through the GAR or PSR pathway. 

Inclusive social networks are key to refugees accessing higher-skilled jobs  

Matching programs like BVOR can build more inclusive social networks for refugees that benefit refugees and welcoming communities, as they are more likely to connect refugees and sponsor groups from different cultural and ethnic communities who do not know each other beforehand. 

The profile of the typical BVOR sponsor is financially well-established and outside the refugee’s ethnic community. Comparatively, resettled refugees in the Canadian PSR program are likely to sponsor family and friends–typically from within their ethnic network–to come to Canada. A 2020 study found that 95% of PSR refugees had familial ties to their sponsor. 

Higher probabilities of accessing skilled job opportunities in Canada’s BVOR program suggest relationships linking refugee newcomers to more well-established host society members are beneficial when seeking employment that matches a refugee’s skillset. 

This integration benefits job-seekers and employers. Refugees have increased access to higher-skilled jobs, and employers benefit substantially from hiring refugees through existing social networks. Employees with a refugee background have higher retention rates than the average employee, saving an employer financial resources they would expend toward employee replacement. The research also states, “Filling positions through networks reduces search costs and uncertainty about workers’ skills and credentials.” 

Though notable, the finding should not underplay the significance of strong relationships between members of the same cultural community. Instead, this finding points to the need to rethink the additional support structures surrounding private sponsorship “naming” programs that typically favor resettling a refugee in one’s familial or close social network. As Canada shows, “naming” programs, are crucial for increasing the impact of private sponsorship (the number of refugees resettled through the PSR naming program in Canada dwarfs that of the BVOR matching program). So, devising strategies to scale matching programs while duplicating the inherent benefit of building diverse social networks within naming programs will be critical to the future success of the Welcome Corps in the U.S. 

With this in mind, and in anticipation of the launch of the “naming” phase of Welcome Corps, we should invest in organizations led by persons with lived experience and ethnic-based community organizations (ECBOs) building diverse and inclusive social networks across cultural groups. Furthermore, knowing that matching programs facilitate access to higher-skilled jobs, the Welcome Corps Consortium and partners should directly engage companies recruiting skilled workers to mobilize potential sponsor groups within their organization. 

We can also continue to learn from other countries with private sponsorship programs already in place. The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) recently published an illuminating report analyzing several such programs and their respective approaches to recruiting and retaining more private sponsors,  concluding that mobilization through targeted outreach is vital.

The U.S. has a workforce shortage in the millions. At the same time, more than 35 million refugees worldwide are seeking safety and protection. Private sponsorship can expand protection pathways globally, fast-track refugees for economic inclusion, and meet the interests of employers and communities seeking to grow their workforce. We can capitalize on the lessons from Canada and European countries to create an American private sponsorship model where inclusive social networks are inherent in naming and matching, nurturing a more interconnected society and a greater sense of belonging. Still, private sponsorship must build intercultural bridges between newcomers and the well-established community to be genuinely effective.