On Jan. 19, the State Department announced the launch of the “Welcome Corps,” the newest change to the U.S. refugee resettlement program. Through the Welcome Corps initiative, groups of private citizens will be able to directly sponsor refugees who have been cleared for resettlement by the State Department for the first time since 1980. Sponsors will need to raise funds and help refugees locate housing, education, health care and employment. With the 43rd anniversary of the U.S. Refugee Act coming up on March 17, the Welcome Corps is being billed as “the boldest innovation in refugee resettlement in four decades.”
Currently, refugees are resettled by 10 nonprofit “voluntary agencies” (VOLAGs) working with the State Department. While these VOLAGs will continue their work through the Reception & Placement Program, the new Welcome Corps model will also allow private citizens to take on direct fundraising and case management responsibilities, without the aid of the VOLAGs that have been organizing this work for decades.
Yet private sponsorship of refugees is not new. Religious groups in the United States have welcomed refugees and helped them integrate since long before the modern resettlement program was established by the 1980 Refugee Act. Though the Welcome Corps initiative builds on this history, the program also represents a significant departure from the faith-based frameworks that underpinned the success of past sponsorship efforts. While proponents of the new program celebrate this change as an opportunity to expand resettlement capacity and leverage untapped community resources, the history of private refugee sponsorship also can inform future initiatives by sounding a note of caution about potential pitfalls.
Before the First World War, religious groups in the United States offered aid to immigrants and refugees. Recalling their own immigrant roots, many communities helped newcomers of the same national or religious background. Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, for example, traces its roots to 1865, when a local church took in four Swedish Lutheran children orphaned by the death of their immigrant parents. Catholic parishes across the country have long welcomed Catholic migrants from Europe and later from Latin America. Catholic Charities began its work in 1910, motivated partly by the challenges of urban poverty, exploitative labor practices and unsafe living conditions that faced new migrants in America’s growing urban centers, from New York to Chicago to Kansas City.
In the mid-20th century, American religious communities began to extend their humanitarian concerns beyond the nation’s borders. In the aftermath of the world wars, denominational bodies representing Jewish, Catholic and Protestant faith traditions rallied around relief and resettlement efforts for displaced Europeans. During this period, refugees’ experiences were determined by the resources and effectiveness of the communities that sponsored them. Nationwide denominational bodies coordinated efforts, but local congregations assumed the cost and responsibility for settling new arrivals. Thus, before the U.N. Refugee Convention of 1951 formalized international protections for displaced people and established the legal definition of “refugee,” and without any formal federal resettlement program, American religious communities sponsored almost 2 million refugees in this era.