Published with the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP)Amnesty International USA (AIUSA).

In the aftermath of World War II, the global community recognized its failure to protect  victims of persecution and made a powerful commitment to protect the rights of refugees.  As we mark the 70th anniversary of the Refugee Convention, the United States’ renewed  leadership on refugee protection is a welcome and necessary commitment to revitalizing the  Refugee Convention’s humanitarian spirit and sense of shared responsibility for supporting  the rights, dignity, and security of all people. 

After four years of devastating retreat on refugee protection, the United States’ commitment  to not only restoring this critical lifeline but also innovating the U.S. refugee program through  community sponsorship is a promising roadmap for foundational change and hope.  

Community sponsorship of refugees, inclusive of private sponsorship, offers communities,  organizations, institutions, and companies the opportunity to directly engage in refugee resettlement. In particular, a private sponsorship program strengthens the public’s sense of  ownership of refugee resettlement, fostering even more direct relationships with their new  neighbors and further deepening community member and newcomer engagement that  already occurs through traditional resettlement and co-sponsorship.  

Expanded community sponsorship is a transformative tool – one part of a larger vision for  how the United States can build back better in U.S. refugee admissions. Leading by example, the United States can also help revitalize the global system for humanitarian protection by  showing how direct engagement builds more resilient programs and communities. 

President Biden’s Executive Order 14013 ordered the Secretary of State and the Secretary of  Health and Human Services to deliver a plan by June 4, 2021 on the expanded use of  community sponsorship, including private sponsorship as well as existing co-sponsorship  models. As the the Departments of State (DOS) and Health and Human Services (HHS)  consider design for this expansion, we make the following recommendations: 

1. Key Definitions & Clear Timelines 

The Bureau of Population, Migration, and Refugees (PRM) within DOS defines community  sponsorship as “pair[ing] refugees with groups of individuals (such as local clubs, businesses,  university communities, faith groups, sports teams, book clubs, etc.) who commit to  providing clearly defined financial and/or in-kind contributions and volunteer services to  support their welcome and integration.”2 PRM defines co-sponsorship as a form of  community sponsorship in which co-sponsors “are community groups which have accepted  – in a (non-legally binding) written agreement with a resettlement agency – the responsibility  to provide, or ensure the provision of, reception and placement services to certain refugees  sponsored by the agency.”3 

However, private sponsorship – a type of community sponsorship, but different from and  usually involving a more robust sponsor commitment than co-sponsorship – has not yet  been formally defined by the U.S. government. Additionally, clear timelines for both the  design process and the ultimate rollout of private sponsorship have yet to be announced. 

Recommendations: 

To level-set for the design process and provide clarity in discussions of various forms of  community sponsorship, PRM should define private sponsorship for the purposes of a future  U.S. program.  

Additionally, to create and sustain public interest, DOS and HHS should commit to clear  timelines for both the design process and the ultimate rollout of private sponsorship. These  timelines should include when agencies will make a more detailed public announcement of  an expanded community sponsorship system, inclusive of a private sponsorship program.  

2. Co-Design Based in Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity  

Expanded community sponsorship, and a private sponsorship program in particular, should  be created through co-design with a spectrum of stakeholders, including refugees  themselves; resettlement agencies; thought leaders with expertise on forms of community  sponsorship in the U.S. and globally; and entities likely to play a role in future community  sponsorship, such as universities, faith institutions, and companies. A co-design process with  active involvement of stakeholders will allow DOS and HHS to benefit from a wealth of  information and expertise.  

Reflecting the president’s commitment to racial equity and inclusion, a co-design process  should center refugees themselves, whose lived experiences are necessary to inform a  program that succeeds at meeting refugees’ needs and goals as they integrate into a new  community.  

Additionally, a co-design process should benefit from the range of other diverse  stakeholders with experience in community sponsorship. Although a private sponsorship  program has not existed in the United States since the 1980s, various forms of community  sponsorship, including co-sponsorship, exist throughout the country. Participants in existing  community sponsorship forms have practical experience to share and build upon – as do  those with knowledge of community sponsorship programs that exist in other countries,  including Canada. Entities likely to serve as sponsors will also have unique insight into the  resources and experience they can provide a newly-arrived refugee.  

Recommendation: 

DOS and HHS should actively engage in a co-design process with a spectrum of stakeholders,  centering resettled refugees, to create an inclusive and equitable process and a responsive  and resilient program. They should also ensure there are transparent lines of  communication with stakeholders. 

3. An Iterative Program with a Strong Monitoring & Evaluation Component 

A U.S. private sponsorship program should be iterative, allowing the program to evolve and  refine in successive iterations as the United States also rebuilds infrastructure for its U.S.  Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP).The program can build on traditional refugee  resettlement and co-sponsorship opportunities while innovating different design options  and assessing how they safeguard the well-being of, improve the experience of, and built  better outcomes for, both refugees and the communities resettling refugees. A strong  monitoring and evaluation component from the program’s outset will facilitate this feedback  and evolution as the program is brought to scale in future fiscal years. 

As with the co-design process, program iterations should center the refugee as a key  stakeholder in their own resettlement process and integration plan. Equity, inclusion, and  diversity should be guiding principles in each iteration to ensure meaningful and effective  participation of impacted communities and other stakeholders. 

Recommendation: 

DOS and HHS should build an iterative private sponsorship program from a monitoring and  evaluation foundation to ensure the well-being and success of refugees and communities,  as well as inform future iterations of program design. 

4. Resettlement and Resources Additional to Existing USRAP 

Private sponsorship should be used to increase the number of refugees resettled in the  United States annually, with an additional number of refugees resettled via private  sponsorship above and beyond the number to be resettled each year through traditional  USRAP and co-sponsorship. This preserves the U.S. humanitarian commitment to resettle  refugees through a government-led resettlement program and acknowledges the critical  work resettlement agencies already do, while utilizing private resources and capacity to  expand pathways to safety for refugees. 

Recommendation

DOS and HHS should work with the White House to designate an additional number of  resettlement places each fiscal year for refugees who are privately sponsored, clearly  separate from and on top of the number who will be resettled through traditional USRAP  and co-sponsorship in each respective year. This number should be publicly announced to  attract sponsor interest and make clear the additive value of private sponsorship. 

5. Opportunities to “Name” Refugees for Sponsorship 

Refugees are primarily referred for traditional resettlement through USRAP by the United  Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), embassies, or family members. For  private sponsorship, another option is an open “naming,” or nomination, of refugees by  sponsors. 

Open naming would incentivize potential sponsors, maximize alignment of interest and  expertise, and allow the program to reach refugees who might not be encompassed by  USRAP currently (e.g., expanded family reunification for non-nuclear family members not  currently eligible to access USRAP through the Priority Three category; refugees from  emergent humanitarian crises abroad; LGBTQ+ refugees or survivors of sexual and gender 

based violence who fear approaching governmental or government-affiliated institutions  where they currently live, but have U.S. contacts or are willing to approach NGOs; and people  determined to be refugees due to, in part, to climate-change impacts). All refugees would  meet the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act refugee definition, and undergo the same  vetting processes as other refugees entering the United States. 

Recommendation

DOS and HHS should consider a mechanism for open “naming” of refugees by sponsors,  either in the initial iteration of the program or in future iterations as the program expands.  At the same time, the program should also begin with and retain a mechanism for “matching”  all other refugees referred by UNHCR, embassies or consulates, and NGOs to sponsors in  the United States. This will allow groups outside of traditional resettlement areas, and/or  connection to refugees overseas, the opportunity to welcome. 

6. A Broad Range of Potential Private Sponsors 

With appropriate infrastructure for application processing, as well as training and oversight,  many types of groups or entities could serve as private sponsors. Universities eager to  sponsor students, “rainbow” groups like those in Canada formed to sponsor and meet the  unique needs of LGBTQ+ refugees, businesses, and groups modeled after the Canadian  program’s “Group of 5” would greatly enhance sponsorship opportunities and have capacity  to more independently undertake sponsorships. A wider range of potential private sponsors  would broaden the actors involved in resettlement, fostering a deeper sense of community  ownership in the program and allowing resettlement to occur or expand in more  communities geographically.  

Recommendation

DOS and HHS should keep open the possibility of a broad range of groups and entities to  serve as sponsors. Even when operating more independently, private sponsors should still  be obligated to meet certain requirements, including demonstration of capacity to welcome  and facilitate integration, and pre-arrival training.