On Tuesday, at the Concordia Summit’s Private Sector Forum on Refugees and Migration, Anne Richards, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, announced that the Department of State is in conversations with Refugee Council USA about launching a private refugee sponsorship pilot program in fiscal year 2017.

Refugee Council USA, the umbrella group of nine refugee resettlement agencies, studied private sponsorship and assembled a set of principles that, Richards noted, will provide the foundation for further exploration of the idea. Their statement calls for the U.S. to consider a private sponsorship program that increases resettlement capacity and allows private individuals or groups to play an even larger role in resettlement.

The Niskanen Center, the organization responsible for introducing the idea to the policy debate last September with this Wall Street Journal op-ed and that originally sketched out what such a plan could look like in a policy paper in March, applauds Refugee Council and the State Department for their support on this crucial reform to our refugee system that will translate into more support for families on the run from violence, terror, and persecution.

Widespread Support and Interest From Various Refugee Actors

Private sponsorship was a common theme at this week’s refugee summits in New York. It was announced that Canada, in conjunction with the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees and George Soros, will help “export” their successful private sponsorship model to other countries. By providing training and information about private sponsorship schemes, the Canadian officials will help launch similar programs worldwide to boost admission totals.

Canadian Immigration Minister McCollum claims 13 nations have expressed interest already, including Britain, Australia, Spain, and Japan.

Private sponsorship or privately funded resettlement programs are already being implemented in Germany, New Zealand, Argentina, Brazil, Italy, Ireland, and other countries. There is truly an international trend towards relying on private sector energy and support to further enable nations to aid refugees.

And encouragingly, support for the idea of private sponsorship in the U.S. has recently taken off.

This summer, 22 state lawmakers from Maryland endorsed private sponsorship and wrote, “We respectfully request that our constituents be provided the opportunity to contribute towards the life saving process of resettlement.”

Bolstering their efforts to increase resettlement, last year nine Syrian, Muslim, Arab, and Turkish groups wrote a letter to President Obama asking for the ability to help privately resettle refugees here.

Republican Senator Ron Johnson and Democratic Representatives Zoe Lofgren and John Conyers also expressed support for further private sector engagement in the resettlement process.

Finally, 15,000 Americans signed a petition calling for private sponsorship as a way for them to get further involved in aiding refugees worldwide.

Why Such Support?

Alexander Aleinikoff, the former United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees and visiting professor of law at Columbia Law School, offered his take at the recent Migration Policy Institute conference at Georgetown.

Aleinikoff argued that the “demand” for refugees was far higher than the 85,000 or so that will be resettled in America in fiscal year (FY) 2016. He reaffirmed that people around the country are ready and willing to contribute to programs that increase refugee resettlement in the U.S., but the ongoing issue is that these programs don’t yet exist, so no amount of private sector interest or financial contributions can boost admission totals.

This means no check from a philanthropist, no celebrity campaigns or fundraisers, and no outpouring of support from an ethnic or religious group can directly influence the number of refugees resettled in the U.S. Contributions can help the refugees currently here, but cannot go towards increasing the cap to welcome new refugees. We’ve essentially placed a ceiling on American compassion, stifling private sector interest in saving lives.

It seems counter-intuitive for a country like the United States, with such vast physical space, tremendous wealth, a diverse population, and robust history of compassion towards newcomers to lack the mechanisms that translate private sector interest into increased humanitarian admissions.

What we need is a link to connect charitable contributions to increased refugee resettlement. Aleinikoff explains:

If we could find a way to tap into that generosity by saying to private groups or private individuals, you can sponsor refugees at no cost to the government. You would have to be responsible and pay the costs and worry about health care and other kinds of things like that. I think we would find enormous appeal, enormous support for these kinds of programs in this country.

At the event, Aleinikoff discussed the Canadian private sponsorship program, noting that it resulted in the admission of more than 275,000 refugees since 1979. Nearly 15,000 of those refugees were resettled in Canada this year using programs that rely entirely or partially on private sector funding. It’s one of the great recent humanitarian accomplishments.

Unknown to many, the United States also had a private sponsorship program during the Reagan administration. The Private Sector Initiative resettled about 16,000 refugees, mostly those escaping from Cuba and the Soviet Union.

Aleinikoff publicized two major benefits for the launch of such a program in the U.S.

First, the capacity of the American resettlement apparatus could expand dramatically by harnessing private sector actors. At MPI, Aleinikoff argued, “you’d have tens of thousands of groups and people interested in bringing refugees in.”

The experience in Canada aptly demonstrates this. More than 9,000 sponsorship groups now exist in the country, and more than $200 million was pumped into the refugee program in 2016 alone.  Private sponsorship is working so well, in fact, that the Canadian immigration services can’t keep up with the outpouring of support.

In their recent report to Congress, the State Department wrote, “National and local resettlement agencies in the United States have reported receiving a remarkable number of offers of assistance including donations of household and personal goods, housing, and willingness to ‘sponsor’ or befriend refugees.” Tapping into this resource would go a long way in offering a lifeline to refugee families.

Second, and even more importantly considering the current political climate surrounding  refugees, private refugee sponsorship serves as a powerful advocacy tool in favor of resettlement.

At Concordia, Becca Heller from the IRAP, argued that private sponsorship is a possible solution to our political climate.

Private refugee resettlement alters the political dynamics by introducing a powerful new narrative about refugee admissions: thousands of individual Americans, not just Washington bureaucrats, want to provide a safe haven for refugees.

This sort of quantifiable demand for action, and the narrative it encourages, offers an appealing justification for stronger measures on the part of the administration. It creates buy-in from American citizens, which in turns bolsters a new pro-refugee constituency that will be vocal in supporting resettlement. Private resettlement enhances the American resettlement apparatus by bringing new people into the system.

Looking Ahead to Private Sponsorship in America

There is tremendous opportunity to help refugees if only we give the American people an avenue with which to do so. What would that do to change the conversation about refugee resettlement in America and the world?

Aleinikoff argued:

Imagine if the public were given a chance to sponsor refugees—if congregations and other groups could bring people in. If the American public through private sponsorship could say we’ll take them, we want more, we can do this, we believe we can support them, and they need our support. I think it’s a wonderful way to push back on some of the ugliness that we have seen.

The American effort to resettle Syrians needs a tremendous boost of courage, a rejection of the anti-Muslim rhetoric that is plaguing our troubled political climate, and, most importantly, an infusion of new resources to combat incalculable devastation worldwide.

The U.S. needs a private sponsorship system to increase our ability as a nation to help those in need. Hundreds of thousands of refugees are knocking on our country’s door. Lawmakers should allow churches, synagogues, mosques, community organizations, and volunteer groups to more forcefully answer the call for help.

Failing to provide an outlet for private contributions fails to tap into the goodwill of the American people and only continues to trap families in conflict. Private-sector driven resettlement will honor American tradition, and not abandon refugees in need of support that could be aided by America’s philanthropic muscle.

As support for private sponsorship intensifies, the Obama Administration should continue conversations with the refugee community on how best to launch a pilot project next year that engages the private sector and increases resettlement capacity.