Statement for the Record of the Niskanen Center[*]
Submitted to
The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs
Hearing on
“Canada’s Fast-Track Refugee Plan: Unanswered Questions and Implications for U.S. National Security”

February 3, 2015

The worldwide refugee crisis has reached a level not seen since World War II.[1] The current international refugee system has proven inadequate to deal with this historic challenge. Government-led efforts have been delayed and insufficient to handle the unprecedented influx of displaced persons. Fortunately, Canada has operated a program that allows private philanthropists and volunteers to cover the costs of resettling displaced persons and integrating them into Canadian society.

This approach has been highly successful and celebrated as a model for nations around the world. The United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) has urged nations to adopt private sponsorship of refugees as an “innovative way to increase opportunities for Syrian refugees.”[2] Peter Sutherland, the UN Special Representative to the Secretary General for International Migration, has said: “A global response also must harness the extraordinary potential of civil society and the private sector.”[3]

Some important nations, such as Germany and Australia, have already responded to this call.[4] Canada’s private sponsorship program, however, is an established and successful model from which the U.S. can learn. It is the main reason that America’s northern neighbor has responded more quickly and forcefully to the worldwide refugee crisis than the U.S. has. This statement provides the details of Canada’s program as well as the U.S. history of private resettlement. The final section provides recommendations for the implementation of future privately funded refugee initiatives in the United States.

Canadian Private Sponsorship of Refugee Program

On December 10, 2015, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcomed 163 Syrian refugees arriving at the airport with hugs and winter jackets.[5] Canadian immigration services plan to welcome 25,000 Syrian refugees in total by the end of February 2016.[6] A substantial part of the country’s resettlement operation is private refugee sponsorship, where groups and individuals in Canada provide refugees with care, lodging, and resettlement assistance.[7] Private refugee sponsorship has proven very successful in Canada for over 30 years—with a total of 225,000 refugees resettled from 140 countries.[8]

As of January 26, a total of 14,003 Syrian refugees have arrived in Canada. Of that number, 8,004 have been government sponsored and 5,112 have been privately sponsored.[9] An additional 887 were part of the blended program, which combines the two. Furthermore, 5,886 Syrians have been approved and are awaiting transport.[10] That would bring the total number to about 20,000 since November.

By the end of February, government officials say that it is likely that 17,000 Syrian refugees will have been resettled in Canada through government and mixed sponsorship, while 8,000 Syrians will be resettled using private refugee sponsorship.[11] From February to the end of the year, Canada intends to add an additional 10,000 refugees—2,000 private and 8,000 public—increasing the total 35,000.

The key to private sponsorship is the link between compassionate Canadians and refugees resettling to a new country. Churches, charities, and groups of citizens provide resettlement assistance, community-based networking, and friendship to refugees – which improve their rate of assimilation, work opportunities, and satisfaction in a new land.

Since 1979, Canada has permitted Canadians to sponsor refugees or individuals in refugee-like situations and fund their resettlement in Canada. The Private Sponsorship of Refugees (PSR) program was created, according to the then-Minister of Manpower and Immigration J.L. Manion, to “offer the possibility of increasing refugee admissions over and above the total achievable through government financed initiatives.”[12] Manion also believed that PSR would enable refugees to “receive settlement services beyond those normally furnished through the federal and provincial government” and “enjoy more individual care and attention than would normally be available.”[13]

Pressure to start the program came from churches and civil societies who wanted the Canadian government to do more to provide relief during the Indochinese refugee crisis of the time.[14] The program was immediately tested by 60,000 refugees came to Canada in 1979-1980.[15] More than half of these refugees were sponsored privately.[16] For their efforts, the 1986 UN Nansen Model, an award given to groups for excellence in service to refugees, was given to “the people of Canada.”[17]

In 2014, Canada admitted 4,560 privately sponsored refugees exempt from the usual refugee limits.[18] In 2013, more refugees entered through private sponsorship (6,269) than through government assistance (5,661).[19] At its peak in 1989, 21,631 refugees were resettled through private sponsorship. Since the program began in 1979, more than 225,000 refugees have been resettled privately, 42 percent of the total number of refugees resettled since 1978.[20]

Canada’s Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program Specifics

Private Sponsorship of Refugees (PSR) allows for sponsorship by three groups. First, private charitable refugee organizations known as Sponsorship Agreement Holders (“SAHs”) can sponsor large numbers of refugees in any given year. Second, a group of five or more adult Canadian citizens or permanent residents who live in the area of settlement can join together to create a “Group of 5” and jointly sponsor a refugee. Third, any other group, nonprofit or otherwise, that “is willing and able to commit the sponsorship” in accordance with PSR requirements can register to sponsor.[21]

The Private Sponsorship of Refugees program does not limit SAHs beyond the requirement that they be “reputable local groups or chapters of larger organizations active in the community where the refugee will be settled and that they have resources to meet their commitments.” In 2014, there were 85 SAHs, with 72 percent church connected.[22] In 2016, there were 97.[23] Any organization or G5 can form a partnership with any other individual (such as a refugee’s family member) or with any other organization.

The prospective sponsors are assessed to ensure they have the financial means to support a refugee family for at least twelve months. Sponsors must have a detailed plan for helping the newcomers adapt to Canada, with specific points such as who in the group will handle which aspects of the family’s integration.[24] In 2015, the average cost per year for a single refugee is roughly 7,320 USD. For a family of four, the cost is $14,900.[25]

The government holds these funds and draws on them if the refugee requests government assistances. Sponsors are required to support refugees for up to one year by:

providing the cost of food, rent and household utilities, other day-to-day living expenses, clothing, furniture and other household goods; locating interpreters; selecting a family physician and dentist; assisting with applying for provincial health-care coverage; enrolling children in school and adults in language training; introducing newcomers to people with similar personal interests; providing orientation with regard to banking services, transportation, etc.; and helping in the search for employment.[26]

Sponsors may also be asked to repay government loans that refugees received to cover their travel to Canada.[27] All sponsors must submit a “settlement plan” to the Canadian government for approval prior to sponsorship to illustrate in detail how they will meet the program requirements.[28]

Under the Sponsorship Agreements private sponsors retained the right to identify a particular refugee or refugee family they wished to sponsor. In such instances the overseas visa office would contact the named individuals and review their admissibility criteria. Sponsors can also submit “un-named sponsorships”, in which case the sponsor would be matched with a refugee by an immigration officer. The sponsor was also permitted to indicate their preference in terms of family size, and source country.[29]

Private Sponsorship of Refugee Program Outcomes

The Private Sponsorship of Refugees program has also had successful social and economic outcomes. A 2007 government report found that privately sponsored refugees (PSRs) enter the labor force quicker than government-assisted refugees and are more likely than employment earnings in the first few years after arrival. [30]  However, over time, those differences diminish. Furthermore, it found from 1998 to 2002, the most recent available numbers, 71 percent of PSR refugees were employed, which was about 25 percent higher than government assisted refugees.

PSR refugees also have higher earnings (C$30,855) than GARs (C$28,901).[31] In 2007, 81 percent of PSRs received no social assistance after the initial period of sponsorship compared to 51 percent of GARs.[32] Private sponsors provide less direct financial support to PSRs than the government provides to GARs, although sponsors often provide refugees with “in-kind” support that would otherwise have to be purchased, and 81 percent of SAHs, CGs, and G5s said that the provision of basic living needs and providing orientation to the community was “not difficult.” Nonetheless, 92 percent of refugees reported that sponsors were “very successful in providing basic living needs.”

The system has, however, seen some difficulties in recent years. Processing times have ballooned, leading some sponsors to discontinue their participation. In a recent survey, every church-connected SAHs expressed concern about PSR processing times.[33] Second, cuts to the Interim Federal Health program for refugees have driven up costs for sponsors. Almost a third of church-connected SAHs reported that their sponsoring groups decreased or ended their involvement due to greater liability for health costs.[34]

The U.S. Tradition of Private Refugee Resettlement

The U.S. has a long history of privately funding the integration of immigrants and refugees. For most of the last 200 years, the government actually prohibited public aid to most immigrants, so private parties stepped up. Families and friends have always been the most important source of assistance, but private organizations, such as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society to the Catholic Church have also facilitated integration of immigrants for more than a century.[35]

Even today, the vast majority of non-refugee immigrants are initially integrated without access to federal funds for means-tested benefits or other forms of assistance. Academic studies have shown that this private integration has been as successful as the public alternatives.[36] While refugees pose unique challenges due to their forced rather than voluntary flight from their homes, this history demonstrates that civil society is willing and able to contribute significantly to the resettlement process.

Until 1945, all immigrants, including refugees, were admitted only with an individual sponsor who promised through an affidavit to care for them should they need assistance, assuring that they would not become a “public charge.” But a 1945 directive from President Harry Truman allowed private organizations to act, for the first time, as the sponsor of a refugee if the groups covered the cost of resettlement to the United States.[37]

President Truman was adamant that his plan would produce the best outcomes. “The record of these welfare organizations throughout the past years has been excellent,” he said in his announcement. “The transportation of these immigrants across the Atlantic will not cost the American taxpayers a single dollar.”[38] In addition to the transportation, these organizations paid the full cost of resettlement and were “responsible for assisting refugees with employment, housing, and other basic needs.”[39]

The experiment was deemed a success, and over the following three decades, these private organizations played the most important role in resettling refugees in the U.S. In those days, the government still required that they, like all other immigrants, would not be a “public charge,” and this assurance was fulfilled through private sponsorship.[40] After the U.S. resettled nearly 40,000 Hungarian refugees in 1956, a congressional report found that “rapid integration of the Hungarians was due to the mobilization of the private sector: voluntary resettlement agencies and their local affiliates.”[41]

After a large influx of refugees following the Vietnam War, the State Department entered finally into formal resettlement agreements. But the ad hoc agreements created disparities between different refugee groups. The Vietnamese refugees received greater benefits and were exempt from the “public charge” provision whereas other refugees who received public assistance after admission were barred from permanent residency.[42] The agreements built up a network of public-private partnerships to resettle refugees that formed the basis of the current system, but the disparities led to calls for a reform that brought uniformity and consistency to the process.

Private Involvement in Current U.S. Refugee Resettlement

The reform came through the Refugee Act of 1980. For the first time, the U.S. created a uniform process of refugee resettlement for refugees from all nations. The new system built on the existing network of private organizations and, therefore, is still heavily dependent on the private sector. The private resettlement groups known as voluntary agencies (VolAgs) of which there are currently nine handle the actual integration of refugees in the U.S. instead of the federal government.[43]

The VolAgs sign agreements—memoranda of understanding (MOUs)—help integrate refugees into American life by linking them to private partners, including churches, community organizations, individual volunteers, and family members. These private partners often supply a residence, teach English, provide initial transportation from the airport or to work, or find initial employment opportunities. Private partners sometimes sign memoranda of understanding (MOUs) to agree formally to help with the resettlement of refugees. Despite the lack of penalties for failure to follow through on these MOUs, defections are apparently rare, according to VolAg representatives.

However, many refugees lack any private partner other than a case manager at the VolAg. Trained case managers locate, if possible, a private partner or otherwise guarantee that the refugees’ needs are being provided for. Case managers pass along direct cash benefits from the government to the refugee, help the refugee apply for government benefits as necessary, aid in the refugee’s job search, and attempt to find volunteers to teach English or provide additional services, such as transportation.

The federal government covers most costs related to the VolAgs’ resettlement efforts and grants more than a half a billion dollars to these groups each year. Nevertheless, the private sector provides more than a quarter of the VolAgs annual revenue, and the private contributions rise to as much as half when the monetary value of volunteer hours and private in-kind contributions.[44]

Refugees entering under this process are also exempted from the “public charge” exclusion under the Immigration and Nationality Act and are immediately eligible for all the same public benefits as U.S. citizens.[45] Case managers at the voluntary agencies walk refugees through benefit applications, leading to relatively high application and use rates among recent refugee groups compared to the native-born population.

President Reagan’s Private Sector Initiative

The Refugee Act placed no statutory limit on the number of refugees who could be admitted, but the number was limited in fact by the amount of money set aside by Congress for resettlement. For this reason, President Ronald Reagan began exploring ways to increase refugees beyond the number that congressional appropriations could support. In 1983, James Purcell, the new Director of the Bureau of Refugee Programs, started to explore the idea of privately sponsored refugees after the administration failed to obtain sufficient congressional funding to expand the refugee admission program.

Purcell, along with Secretary of State George Schultz, presented the idea of private sponsorship to President Reagan. According to Purcell, the president was “excited” about the idea and told them to “take it as far as it would go.” The concept, says Purcell, was initially implemented for Vietnamese refugees in fiscal years 1984 to 1986 and included about two or three thousand refugees.[46] After this initial proof of concept, President Reagan announced the creation of the Private Sector Initiative, a privately funded refugee program in 1986.[47]

In addition to the normal quotas for each region of the world, the Presidential Directive that established the refugee limits for 1987 created “an unallocated reserve” of refugee slots that could be used by people from any region. “The Congress shall be notified in advance if there is a need to use numbers from the unallocated reserve,” the president said in his announcement in October 1986. “The admission of refugees using numbers from this reserve shall be contingent upon the availability of private sector funding sufficient to cover the essential and reasonable costs of such admissions.”[48]

In renewing the program for FY 1988, President Reagan emphasized “that no federal program funds shall be expended for such admissions.”[49] He also added that “privately funded admissions may be used for refugees of special humanitarian concern to the United States in any region of the world at any time during the fiscal year.”[50]


According to Jewel LaFontant-Mankarious, the U.S. Coordinator for Refugee Affairs under President George H.W. Bush, the program was “founded on the belief that, in a time of significant constraints on all public budgets and expenditures, a privately-funded program would enable some refugees to enter and be resettled in the United States who might not otherwise be admitted because of limitations on the funded programs.”[51] A desire to prevent welfare dependency may have also motivated President Reagan. His outline for immigration reform in 1981 included a promise to “seek new ways to integrate refugees into our society without nurturing their dependence on welfare.”[52]

The Private Sector Initiative (PSI) allowed U.S. ethnic organizations to enter into Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) with the State Department’s U.S. Coordinator of Refugee Affairs to resettle refugees.[53] There was no limit on the number or type of organizations eligible to apply. MOUs between the State Department and private organizations were—and still are—the basis for all U.S. refugee resettlement. But under PSI, organizations that signed up to perform resettlement would actually impact the number of refugees being admitted. Rather than just helping resettle refugees who would have been admitted anyway under the normal refugee limit, organizations were directly responsible for refugees coming to the United States.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service vetted the sponsors.[54] PSI sponsoring organizations also helped refugees prepare refugee claims and advise them on how to handle interviews with U.S. refugee officials overseas.[55] Some refugees were designated as “unfunded” after they arrived in the United States based on their likelihood of success in the labor market. The MOUs required sponsors provide food, housing, medical insurance, and cash assistance.[56] According to the MOU signed by CJF and HIAS, sponsoring organizations must be:

responsible for the cost of admission (processing, transportation, documentation, medical examination), Reception and Placement and resettlement of all privately funded refugees for two years after admission of those refugees to the United States, or until they attained permanent residency status (i.e. green cards), whichever came first.[57]

Resettlement costs for the organizations varied widely from $1,500 to $9,000 per refugee in 1992 ($2,550 to $15,300 in 2015 dollars).[58] Publicly funded refugees cost the U.S. government about $7,000 in 1989 ($13,500 in 2015 dollars).[59]

PSI-refugees did not “financially qualify for publicly funded medical, food, or cash assistance for two years after their admission to the United States or until they attain lawful permanent resident status.”[60] They were also ineligible for special refugee-related service programs.[61] Refugees with sponsors were deemed to not meet income-thresholds for means-tested benefits. Refugees who applied for benefits would present their I-94 INS Arrival-Departure Record as identification. The I-94 form for PSI indicated that the refugee was privately sponsored and that private resources may be available.

Welfare offices called the sponsors to identify whether resources were available.[62] If a refugee applied, the sponsor was required to “counsel” the refugee and supply any support that they need.[63] Theoretically, however, PSI refugees who needed benefits were eligible,[64] though it is unclear whether any accessed them. The Rhode Island Department of Human Services (DHS) Manual, for example, told offices that:

The sponsorship statement… should be regarded as lead information concerning possible income and resources that are available to the refugee. DHS and FS agency representatives are obligated to follow-up with the sponsoring agency to ascertain the actual availability of any income and resources and to use such verified information in the final decision on whether or not the refugee is eligible for assistance. It is inappropriate to simply deny an application filed by a sponsored refugee solely because of the statement on the I-94.[65]

If the sponsor failed in its responsibilities, the refugee was entitled federal benefits, and the PSI MOU stated that “the sponsoring agency must reimburse the federal, state, and local governments for any assistance the refugee may receive.”[66]

Between 1987 and 1993, at least five organizations signed PSI MOUs: Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), the Zoroastrian Association of North America, the Vietnamese Resettlement Association, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) and the Conference for Jewish Federations (CJF).[67] According to Princeton Lyman, Assistant Secretary of State for Refugee Affairs from 1989 to 1992, Pentecostal Christians were also privately resettled in 1990, though no public record of this was found.[68]

In 1991, the State Department officials testified that Assyrian Christians were going to bring in a certain number of privately sponsored refugees and indicated that they were attempting to recruit Ethiopian Christians.[69] While there is no clear evidence whether this occurred, the New York Times reported in 1992 that “refugee groups—Cubans, Vietnamese, Ethiopians, and the Zoroastrians of Iran—have gone beyond volunteer and social work to sponsor and subsidize refugees the Government will not admit… [i]n an unusual private-sector immigration program.”[70]

The vast majority of PSI-refugees were Cubans and Jews from the Soviet Union. In an effort dubbed “Project Exodus,” CANF began to use PSI in 1988 to bring Cubans who the Castro regime had stranded abroad. CANF registered as a VolAg and funded Cuban resettlement to the U.S. Nearly 8,000 Cubans were resettled from Panama, Venezuela, Spain, Costa Rica, and the Dominican Republic from 1988 to 1993.[71]

In the late 1980s, the Soviet Union began to liberalize emigration. The U.S. responded by expanding admissions of refugees from the Soviet Union, with a preference for religious minorities.[72] The numbers quickly reached unprecedented levels. The Soviet allotment jumped from 15,000 to 50,000 from 1987 to 1990 and benefits for refugees were cut dramatically. In 1990, the Bush administration recruited HIAS and CJF to fund the one-time admission of 10,000 Soviet Jewish refugees. Nearly 8,000 ended up coming, roughly 20 percent of all Jewish refugees in 1990.[73]

Private Sector Initiative Results

Despite concerns that there would be a tradeoff between additional private entries and additional public ones,[74] PSI and federal numbers moved in the same direction. From fiscal year 1988 to 1993, PSI resettled at least 16,016 refugees, 2,700 per year from FY 1988 to FY1993. There were 7,802 Soviet Jews, 7,905 Cubans, and 45 Vietnamese and Iranians, though there may have been others, like the Jews, which were not included in the official PSI quota.[75] These numbers were still far less than the 51,000 eligible to enter under PSI from 1987 to 1995, but leading officials and refugee organizations at the time strongly supported the program and considered it a successful endeavor.

In 1990, the State Department told Congress that the U.S. Coordinator for Refugee Affairs was “very proud” of the program, and that it has made a “substantial contribution to our refugee program.” Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger also called the program “successful” in 1990, and ORR’s 1990 report to Congress stated that it “strongly endorses the Private Sector Initiative and is committed to encouraging the involvement of the private sector in refugee resettlement wherever possible.”[76]

In 1991, U.S. Coordinator for Refugee Affairs Jewel LaFontant-Mankarious told Congress that PSI was “excellent” because “it gives people an opportunity to contribute…. reaching out and helping others like themselves to come in and enjoy the fruits of this country.” Even some of the traditional VolAgs were receptive to PSI. Richard Ryscavage, USCCB Executive Director of Migration and Refugee Services, told Congress in 1991 that PSI “work[s] for more well-established ethnic communities and can incrementally increase admissions.”[77]

The Clinton administration, however, did not renew PSI in 1996, stating that it was too “difficult for many organizations to meet the financial requirements.”[78] This was really only true for health insurance. The Senate Judiciary Committee found in 1992 that “private sector organizations resettling refugees have grown reluctant to commit themselves to private sector resettlement initiatives because of unpredictable and inflationary medical costs.”[79] The issue became so difficult for CANF that the Department of Health and Human Services granted the nonprofit $1,700 per refugee for the last 1,000 refugees that it resettled under PSI.[80]

Another difficulty was that sponsors were required to continue to support refugees under PSI, even if the refugee rejected a “reasonable” job offer. The CJF review of the pilot program called this requirement a “major problem” for the program.[81] Nonetheless, 84 percent of those placed in small communities (where the only systematic tracking was done) were employed after a year.[82]

PSI’s underuse, however, was not solely a matter of cost. The process to enroll as a PSI organization was arduous with many groups deterred from even applying.[83] Moreover, Freedom of Information Act requests revealed that some officials considered the program unfair because it created a preference for certain established immigrant populations.[84] But the private sponsors argued that PSI was open to all groups and that it opened up public slots for less established immigrant groups.[85]

After failing to approve a single application for PSI, the Clinton administration allowed it to sunset in 1996, despite lobbying from Iraqi Christians who wished to use the program.[86] President Reagan’s “unallocated reserve” was converted to a publicly funded quota that could be used by refugees from any region of the world.[87] All subsequent administrations have followed this precedent.[88]

Implementing U.S. Privately Funded Refugee Resettlement Today

The United States should learn from Canada’s experience as well as its own and create a privately funded refugee category as President Reagan did under PSI. The Canadian experience demonstrates the feasibility of a consistent flow of privately funded refugee resettlement. Both experiences show that increases in admissions of privately sponsored refugees correspond to increases in admissions of publicly funded refugees. Public and private admissions complement, rather than displace, each other.

The U.S. can implement private refugee resettlement without completely jettisoning the current system. An important lesson from PSI was that requiring private sponsors to recreate the resettlement capacity on a limited or temporary basis is expecting too much. The U.S. should continue to rely on the VolAgs to coordinate resettlement and act as oversight over private partners who wish to sponsor and support a refugee. People can already sign up to volunteer to aid refugee resettlement, but the goal should be to incentivize the private sector to donate and volunteer to expand the current process.

As an initial step toward private sponsorship, the president should create a privately funded refugee category with a separate quota—in addition to the quotas for geographical regions—for refugees that are privately funded. The Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) and the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) should create a private resettlement account to receive donations from the public and philanthropists who wish to fund additional refugee resettlement. The White House could promote donations to the VolAg-held account, as it did following the Haiti earthquake in 2010 for the Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.[89]

ORR and PRM should work with the VolAgs to determine what President Reagan labeled the “reasonable and essential cost” of resettling an additional refugee. Each time the private resettlement account crossed that predetermined threshold, the State Department would be required to admit an additional refugee under the private quota in the following fiscal year. The refugee would be admitted under the same procedures and with the same access to benefits as any other refugee. The only difference would be that the VolAgs would work to integrate them into U.S. society using the funds from the private resettlement account.

This system has a variety of benefits, including some advantages over PSI and the Canadian system. First, it would not require any changes to the resettlement process, which would make it the easiest to implement. Unlike PSI and Canada’s system, it would not require getting new people to sign up to perform resettlement or additional bureaucracy to process sponsorship applications or to enforce their agreements. It would also create consistency in the cost of resettlement, which was a major problem for PSI.

The only drawback to the privately funded only approach is that it would lose the direct and often personal connection between the sponsor and the refugee, which is a powerful motivator to become involved. Fortunately, a transition to private sponsorship could be easily built upon this initial system. Individuals who are family members of refugees can already submit an affidavit of relationship to the State Department and, in effect, “sponsor” their family member for refugee status in the United States without the typical UNHCR referral.[90]

The State Department should expand this procedure—known as the Priority-3 program—by removing a variety of constraints on the program. Sponsors are currently eligible only if they were themselves admitted as a refugee or asylee in the previous five years and are family members of the refugee—a definition that excludes adult or married children, adult siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, or cousins.[91] Eliminating these restrictions would expand the eligible sponsor pool dramatically.

An expanded Priority-3 program could be combined with a private resettlement account. This would require family members who wished to access both programs to file an Affidavit of Relationship (AOR) with the nearest local VolAg affiliate along with a contribution to the resettlement account equal to the threshold for triggering an additional admission. Family members would then undergo DNA testing to verify the family relationship and sign a memorandum of understanding with the VolAg to engage in the resettlement process with the VolAg. After the requisite fraud and other criminal background checks were finished, the refugees would be admitted the following fiscal year, if they had also cleared the current security checks.

Expansions to permit churches and other organization to be sponsors would require congressional action. But such an expansion would be an easy addition to this system. Churches or other community organizations would be required to sign up with the VolAgs as many currently do. Individuals at these churches or other organizations would obviously also need to clear background checks. They would then submit a contribution to the resettlement account in the amount necessary to meet the threshold requirements that the resettlement of whatever number of refugees that they wished to sponsor.


With a worldwide refugee crisis, the United States has a duty to not block the escape of refugees fleeing persecution and violence abroad. But with limited federal funds, the U.S. government will need to create an avenue for private citizens to fulfill this moral imperative. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has advocated privately funded refugee programs, and some important nations, such as Germany and Australia, have already responded to this call. The United States should follow their lead and open its philanthropic doors to save more refugees from violence, persecution, and poverty.


[*] The Niskanen Center is a libertarian 501(c)(3) nonprofit think tank located in Washington, D.C. founded in 2014.


[1] UNHCR. “Worldwide displacement hits all-time high as war and persecution increase.” June 18, 2015.


[3] Peter Sutherland, “Europe’s Bad Example,” Jordan Times, October 4, 2015.

[4] Germany:







[10] Ibid.


[12] Cameron, 2013.

[13] Cameron, 2013.

[14] Ashley, Chapman. “Private Sponsorship and Public Policy.” Citizen for Public Justice. 2014.

[15] Government of Canada. “Guide to the Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program.” 2015.

[16] Chapman, 2014.

[17] Chapman, 2014.

[18] Steven Meurrens. “The Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program After Alan Kurdi.” Policy Options.  25 September 2015.

[19] Chapman, 2014.

[20] Nicholas, Keung. “Canada’s Refugee Sponsorship Program Under Threat.” Toronto Star. 22 September 2014.

[21] Government of Canada. “Private Sponsorship of Refugees Application Guide.”

[22] Ibid.


[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Voegeli, 2014.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Government of Canada. “Guide to the Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program.” 2015.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Chapman, 2014.

[34] Nicholas, Keung. “Canada’s Refugee Sponsorship Program Under Threat.” Toronto Star. 22 September 2014.

[35]“Q&A: Jewish Agency in US Marks 130 Years of Protecting the Persecuted”. UNHCR News. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 3 Feb. 2011.

[36] George Borjas. “Does Welfare Reduce Poverty?” Harvard University. October 2015.

See: Marianne Bitler; Hilary Hoynes. “Immigrants, Welfare Reform, and the U.S. Safety Net.” National Bureau of Economic Research: Working Paper 17667. December 2011.

[37]Truman, Harry. Statement and Directive on Displaced Persons. New York Times. American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, 22 Dec. 1945.

[38] Truman, 1945.

[39]Eby, J., Smyers, J., & Kekic, E. The Faith Community’s Role in Refugee Resettlement and Advocacy in United States. Church World Service, 2, 2010.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42]Brown, A., & Scribner, T. (2014). Unfulfilled Promises, Future Possibilities: The Refugee Resettlement System in the United States. Journal on Migration and Human Society, 103-105.

[43] There are currently nine such agencies: the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, International Rescue Committee, U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, Church World Service, Ethiopian Community Development Council, World Relief Services, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, and U.S. Immigrant and Refugee Commission.[43]

[44] Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. “The Real Cost of Welcome.” 2009.


[46] Interview with authors. January 4, 2016.

[47] Ronald Reagan. “FY 1987 Refugee Ceilings.” Code of Federal Regulations. 17 October 1986.

[48]Reagan, 1986.

[49] Ronald Reagan. “Determination of FY 1989 Refugee Admissions.” The Code of Federal Regulations. 5 October 1988.

[50]Reagan, 1988.

[51] U.S. House of Representatives. “Reauthorization of Approprirations for the Refugee Act of 1980.” House Judiciary Committee. 25 July 1991.

[52] Woolley, John, and Gerhard Peters. “Ronald Reagan: Statement on United States Immigration and Refugee Policy”. The American Presidency Project, 30 July, 1981.

[53]  Woolley and Peters, 1981.

[54] Glasgow, Kathy. “From Moscow to Miami”. Miami New Times, 14 July, 1993.

[55] Johnstone, Andrew, and Helen Laville. The US public and American foreign policy (p. 142). Routledge, 2010.

[56] Glasgow, Kathy. “From Moscow to Miami”. Miami New Times, 14 July, 1993.

[57] Madeleine Tress. “Resettling Unfunded, Unattached Soviet Refugees In Small U.S. Communities.” Journal of Jewish Communal Service. December 1991.

[58] Sontag, Deborah. “Making ‘Refugee Experience’ Less Daunting”. The New York Times, 27 September, 1992.

[59] Editorial. “Soviet Refugees, By Any Other Name”. The New York Times, 15 September, 1989.

[60] “Refugee Assistance”. Rhode Island Department of Human Service Manual, 2002.

[61] Tress, Madeleine. “Resettling Unfunded, Unattached Soviet Refugees In Small U.S. Communities: Notes of a Pilot Project”. Council of Jewish Federations, August, 1991.

[62] Connecticut Department of Income Maintenance “Uniform Policy Manual: Refugee Assistance Program”. 1 April, 2002.


[64] California Department of Social Services. “Food Stamp Program Noncitizen Eligibility Reference Guide”. State of California’s Health and Human Services Agency, 29 December, 2010.

[65] “Refugee Assistance”. Rhode Island Department of Human Service Manual, 2002.


[67] Joan Fitzpatrick and Robert Pauw. “Foreign Policy, Asyum, and Discretion.” Willamette Law Review. 1991-1992.

[68]Conversation with authors.

[69] U.S. House of Representatives. “Refugee Admissions.” Subcommittee on International Law, Immigration, and Refugees of the Committee on the Judiciary. 23 September 1991.;view=1up;seq=47;size=200

[70]Deborah Sontag. “Making Refugee Experiences Less Daunting.” The New York Times. 27 September 1992.

[71] William Gibson. “U.S. Assists Cuban Influx From Abroad.”Sun Sentinel. 3 November 1991.

[72]Andorra Bruno. “Refugee Admissions and Resettlement Policy.” Congressional Research Service. 18 February 2015.

[73]Madeleine Tress. “Resettling Unfunded, Unattached Soviet Refugees In Small U.S. Communities.” Journal of Jewish Communal Service. December 1991.

[74] U.S. House of Representatives. “Refugee Admissions for Fiscal Year 1990.” Subcommittee on International Law, Immigration, and Refugees of the Committee on the Judiciary. September 12, 13 1989.;view=1up;seq=3   

[75]Bill Frelick. “Needed: A Comprehensive Solution for Cuban Refugees.” Interpreter Release. 1995.

[76] U.S. House of Representatives. “Refugee Admissions for Fiscal Year 1990.” Subcommittee on International Law, Immigration, and Refugees of the Committee on the Judiciary. September 12, 13 1989.;view=1up;seq=3

[77] U.S. House of Representatives. “Reauthorization of Appropriations for the Refugee Act of 1980.”

Subcommittee on International Law, Immigration, and Refugees of the Committee on the Judiciary. 25 July 1991.

[78]“Examining the President’s Fiscal Year 1996 Budget Request for Refugee Admissions.” Senate Judiciary Committee. 1 August 1995.

[79] J. Michael Myers. “Refugee Resettlement into the 1990s.” International Migration Review. 1991.

[80] Myers, 1991.

[81] Myers, 1991.

[82] Myers, 1991.

[83] Conversation with authors with Princeton Lyman, the U.S. Coordinator for Refugee Affairs in 1991. 2015.

[84]William Gibson. “U.S. Assists Cuban Influx From Abroad.” Sun Sentinel. 3 November 1991.

[85]Gibson, 1991.  

[86]“Examining the President’s Fiscal Year 1996 Budget Request for Refugee Admissions.” Senate Judiciary Committee. 1 August 1995.;view=1up;seq=1

[87] Bill Clinton. “Presidential Determination on FY 1996 Refugee Admissions.” Office of the Federal Register. 1995.

[88] Barack Obama. Presidential Determination for Refugee Admissions for Fiscal Year 2016. Office of the Press Secretary. 29 September 2015.

[89] “Haiti Earthquake Relief.” 2010.