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US copies Canada’s private refugee sponsorship program even as groups here withdraw | CBC radio

The current24:52Canada’s private refugee sponsorship program inspires US efforts

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The US is launching a private refugee sponsorship program closely modeled on Canada, although the program has been criticized in that country for long delays and cumbersome bureaucracy.

The new program, called the Welcome Corps, was announced by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken last month. He said it would “capitalize on the generosity and goodwill of American citizens” willing to assume the financial and logistical demands of settling newcomers into their communities.

A supporter south of the border hopes it will help shore up resettlement efforts after targets were cut significantly during former US President Donald Trump’s tenure.

“The refugee resettlement system was so gutted under the previous administration that we’re trying to rebuild it,” said Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), a nonprofit refugee resettlement program in Silver Spring, MD.

“Private sponsorship is one way to increase our capacity,” he said those of the river Matt Galloway.

CLOCK | How Canada’s private refugee sponsorship program began:

Vietnamese refugee friendship with sponsors lasts 40 years

Their relationship began after the Vietnam War. The Chaus were Vietnamese “Boat People”. Ron and Clara Wiebe were among the Manitoba Mennonites who helped them start a new life in Canada thanks to a groundbreaking private sponsorship program turning 40 on March 5.

Former US President Donald Trump has set the fiscal 2021 refugee intake cap at a 40-year low of 15,000, citing concerns about a pandemic. When he took office, US President Joe Biden revised that target to 62,500. His government aims to relocate 125,000 refugees in 2023 – although just over 25,000 were relocated in 2022 from a similar destination.

The Welcome Corps program runs in parallel with existing government-funded refugee resettlement programs. It aims to begin resettling refugees by April and hopes to recruit 10,000 Americans in its first year to sponsor at least 5,000 refugees. It requires sponsors to raise a minimum of $2,275 and commit to 90 days of counseling aimed at connecting refugees with local organizations that can provide additional support.

It is closely related to an initiative that began in Canada in 1979 to facilitate the arrival of Vietnamese refugees. According to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), the program brought more than 327,000 refugees to Canada between 1979 and 2020; with a model copied by countries around the world.

In a statement to the Canadian press, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration Julieta Valls Noyes said the U.S. is “grateful to the Canadian government for sharing details about its program” and Canada’s “assistance in the… Approval” appreciates us learning from their program.”

“We have always envied Canada”

Brian Dyck has advised several US organizations wishing to participate in the new program and helped them use the Canadian model as a starting point.

“In the beginning we looked at a lot of the material that was being developed here in Canada and just adapted it a little bit,” said Dyck, coordinator of Mennonite Central Committee Canada’s national migration and resettlement program.

Dyck said Canada’s program plays a special role within the broader refugee resettlement system and has proven to be an effective tool when a particular refugee crisis draws public attention, such as in Syria, Afghanistan or Ukraine. It can also be useful in reuniting families in cases where refugees have settled in Canada but their loved ones are still being displaced elsewhere, he said.

Private sponsorship “allows for more players to be involved and I think that strengthens the whole system,” he said.

Hetfield said his organization, HIAS, is currently limited to relocating refugees with 25 designated family service agencies across the United States, but Welcome Corps will allow them to work with any group willing and able to provide relocation assistance.

“We’ve always envied Canada this alternative way of taking in refugees… we’re really glad the United States is now embracing it,” Hetfield said.

He believes US organizations can learn from the Canadian model, particularly by ensuring appropriate boundaries are set and that sponsors promote “independence and self-reliance,” he said.

A man in a blue suit and glasses looks at the camera.
Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, hopes private sponsorship can increase his organization’s capacity to help refugees. (Submitted by Mark Hetfield)

Canada’s program mired in bureaucracy: Senator

Ratna Omidvar, an independent Ontario senator who has campaigned for refugee assistance for many years, said it was “a real relief” to see the US getting involved in resettlement efforts again.

However, she pointed out that the Canadian program requires much higher donation amounts and a commitment from sponsors of at least one year.

“I think the ambition, the scope and the scale are different, but I will be hopeful and say this is a step in the right direction,” she said.

Omidvar was part of a group of 17 people who sponsored a Syrian family of 12 who came to Canada in 2016. That family has since found jobs, bought their own home, and all have become Canadian citizens, she said.

But despite success stories like this, Omidvar said, Canada’s program has become “overly clunky” and burdened with bureaucracy.

“There’s a very, very long wait between finding a refugee, applying and waiting for the travel permit,” she said.

ratna omidvar
Senator Ratna Omidvar was part of a group of 17 people who sponsored a Syrian family of 12 who came to Canada in 2016. (Global Diversity Exchange/Ryerson University)

Interest in Canada’s program has increased significantly in recent years, fueled by a desire to help refugees flee conflicts such as Syria’s civil war. As a result, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) introduced new rules, including checks and balances, to ensure sponsor groups meet the needs of newcomers.

But the change has caused some organizations to withdraw from the sponsorship program, citing time constraints and cumbersome additional paperwork.

IRCC has also been criticized for limited places and long processing times, particularly for family reunions. In a statement to CBC last month, IRCC blamed the delays on demand outpacing available seats.

A new way of nation building

Omidvar said she understands the need for transparency, accountability and risk assessment in the resettlement process – but she believes some protocols have become “impregnable” obstacles.

“If there’s one hope I have, it’s that we start looking at what needs to be, what can be used at will, and what should be set aside entirely,” she said.

Despite the delays, Omidvar believes Canada’s private sponsorship program is an important focus for how Canadians come together, “with all our differences, with all our differences.”

“It kind of creates the glue that brings together the emotional distances between people, not just between refugees and sponsors, but between sponsors and sponsors,” she said.

“I think this has become a new way, a new approach to nation-building.”

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