Americans across the country have been gripped by the chaotic departure of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. The images are horrifying. The stories are heartbreaking. But the tremendous response from the American people has been uplifting and inspiring.
The Wall Street Journal reports that local refugee resettlement officials have seen an “unprecedented outpouring of support” from Americans looking to help the thousands of refugees who made it out of Afghanistan in time. Communities across the United States have rallied alongside resettlement agencies — signing up supporters, collecting donations, and mobilizing to welcome their newest neighbors.
It’s a much-needed shot in the arm for a resettlement system whose infrastructure was severely eroded by the Trump administration. In fact, this surge of goodwill from the American people is so great it demands action from the Biden administration to fully capitalize on it.
To that end, the administration should no longer delay launching a private sponsorship program for Afghan evacuees. The idea is simple: neighbors, friends, family members, classmates, teammates, congregations, or social clubs join together, raise money, create a plan, partner with a local nonprofit, and take the lead in resettling an Afghan family.
Earlier this year, State Department officials announced plans to create a private refugee sponsorship program in 2022. It was a powerful signal that the Biden administration wants to usher in a new era of private sector engagement around the global refugee crisis.
But the rapid fall of Afghanistan means that launching in 2022 will be far too late, given the level of interest from Americans and the level of need at this very moment.
The resettlement system was not prepared for the estimated 50,000 Afghans arriving without warning even before it was decimated under Trump. Moreover, the Afghans arriving in the U.S. will be legally designated as “parolees” and not refugees. Under current law, this distinction means the new arrivals will be offered less generous public support than other refugees. Because of this, resettlement agencies are scrambling to resettle Afghans and piecing together services.
As it stands, refugees must be settled within a 100-mile radius of a resettlement agency’s office. That means countless communities who want to directly welcome Afghans as their new neighbors are unable to do so. And even if they live in the right areas, private citizens will not be allowed to take the lead in resettling a family — only to support the overwhelmed agencies. But managing resettlement is a job that private groups that undergo specialized training and raise funds can do, and some research suggests that it actually leads to better outcomes for refugees.
In fact, one huge benefit of private sponsorship is that a sponsoring group could ask to host specific refugees. This opens up the possibility that veterans’ groups, NGOs, or diaspora communities could be directly reunited with their interpreters, allies, and family members. Another possibility for sponsors could be university campus communities featuring students, faculty, and alumni.
Private sponsorship also enjoys bipartisan support, and improves the public support of the resettlement system at large.
Last week, Cecilia Muñoz and John Bridgeland, former directors of the White House Domestic Policy Council under Presidents Obama and Bush respectively, wrote in The Hill that President Biden should “follow through on his commitment to create a private sponsorship program so that Afghan and other refugees get the support they need.”
In March, a YouGov poll found that restoring America’s refugee resettlement program is supported by 49 percent of Americans and opposed by 39 percent, a 10-point margin of support. More encouraging, the inclusion of refugee sponsorship both increases support and decreases opposition. With the inclusion of private-sector refugee sponsorship, the margin of support for rebuilding the resettlement program more than doubled, to 22 points (55 percent in favor, 33 percent opposed).
Some may question whether launching private sponsorship right now could worsen resource constraints by diverting funding to training people and getting the program off the ground.
Launching private sponsorship does require time, money, and personnel. But so will managing the sudden influx of short-term volunteers. Channeling their energy to create a sponsorship program would be a long-term investment in the infrastructure of the resettlement system. It’s the best strategy to turn what could be temporary volunteers into enduring supporters who could be empowered to take on future cases.
Expanding sponsorship would also foster bonds between refugees and community members that would improve their integration long-term, from better access to employment to enhanced language training and more robust social networks. Also, sponsorship would create thousands of Americans who would become ambassadors for the resettlement system.
Even with record donations and interest, resettlement agencies are still struggling to provide full services for this vulnerable group of Afghans, according to reports from both the Washington Post and CBS News.
That is precisely why it is the perfect time to launch private sponsorship, recognizing the needs of refugees, the limitations of resettlement agencies, and the far reach of the individuals, congregations, philanthropists, businesses, and foundations that crave direct sponsoring opportunities.
Sponsorship, in the next six months, can serve as a pressure valve for the overworked resettlement agencies. Allowing Americans to take on resettlement cases — with careful background checks, sponsor training, approved partnership with local nonprofits, and rigorous monitoring and evaluation — will ultimately expand the resettlement system, not undermine it.
Americans across the nation are ready to serve as sponsors. Making them partners will help immensely in ensuring the integration of the new refugees is successful and would provide a welcome counterpoint to the narrative of abandonment that now clouds the American exit from Afghanistan. It would also transform our resettlement system for the long term through a historic infusion of manpower, organizational capacity, and goodwill.
Ask yourself: how many sponsor groups would have been created in the last three weeks if private sponsorship was operating this summer? How many refugees from Afghanistan would already be matched with a sponsoring group and receiving a joyful welcome from their new friends and neighbors?
With 50,000 Afghan refugees on their way to the U.S., waiting until 2022 to launch private sponsorship is no longer an option.