Even before President Donald Trump, the refugee resettlement process was slow and tedious, but Trump has made matters worse by reducing annual refugee quotas to a minimum of 18,000 for fiscal year 2020 and 15,000 for fiscal year 2020. 2021, before Biden increased it, which in turn led to many resettlement organizations closing or downsizing. President Biden raised the 2021 cap to 62,500 in May of that year – and set a cap of 125,000 for 2022 – but was unable to restore the resettlement infrastructure that Trump undermined. As a result, the highest quotas remain largely unfilled, with a record 11,411 refugees admitted in 2021, although many more would love to come. Even in the current fiscal year, the administration expects to fall well short of its target, Axios reports.
The Biden administration has tried to ease the impasse — at least for Ukrainian victims of Russian aggression — by creating the Uniting for Ukraine program, under which private citizens can sponsor Ukrainian refugees. Ukrainians wishing to enter must first obtain a US sponsor, who must prove they can financially support the newcomer for two years; they must also pass certain health and safety checks. Ukrainians can apply for permission to work but can only stay for two years. US sponsors have filed applications on behalf of some 60,000 Ukrainians under this policy. The administration has pledged to help at least 100,000 Ukrainians move overall.
The war in Ukraine is set to be one of the bloodiest in modern history
The program is a good start, but could be improved by adapting a similar, better run Canadian program.
Since 1979 — inspired by the massive number of people displaced by the Vietnam War and its aftermath — Canada’s Private Sponsorship of Refugees program has enabled ordinary people and community groups to support refugees financially and otherwise for 12 months (or up to that the refugee is self-reliant, whichever comes first). Sponsors can be private citizens working together (a “group of five”) or a group that has a sponsorship agreement with the Canadian government, such as a religious institution or cultural organization. In a stark contrast to the US program, refugees can stay permanently after the sponsorship period, and the program is not limited to people from specific nations. Combining financial assistance with more personal support, such as helping refugees find language lessons or enrolling their children in school, gives refugees a chance to get started on track. Recipients of private assistance must be a refugee as defined by the United Nations (or according to a few other criteria). In 2022, Canada’s target number for privately sponsored refugees is 31,255, while the target for government-sponsored refugees is 19,790. Relative to the size of Canada’s population – a just over a tenth of that of the United States — those numbers are several times higher per capita than Biden’s unmet quota of 125,000.
Privately sponsored refugees tend to be better educated than government-assisted refugees, but even after controlling for these variables, a recent Canadian study found that privately sponsored people had lower rates of employment and higher incomes than those sponsored by the government.
The Canadian program is superior to the US Uniting for Ukraine program in part because it offers refugees a permanent solution. How many Ukrainians admitted under the US program will be able to return home in two years? The Russian-Ukrainian war shows few signs of ending, and even if it ends tomorrow, many Ukrainians may not be able to return to destroyed towns and homes. Past refugee crises, such as those triggered by the Syrian civil war, make it clear that many people forced to flee war zones are in need of new, permanent housing.
Opening up sponsored resettlement to people facing a multitude of dangers around the world, as Canada does, makes more sense than a temporary program targeting one nationality. To take just one example, the United States should open its doors to Russians fleeing the growing oppression of Vladimir Putin’s regime. We should welcome people fleeing war and repression, regardless of race, ethnicity or nationality.
Creating a program more like Canada’s could help the United States meet the moral imperative to help Ukrainians and other refugees (permanently, not just temporarily). It would also help advance US economic and strategic interests. Studies show that migrants strengthen the US economy and contribute disproportionately to scientific and technological innovation, and that even refugees are net contributors to the public purse. Moreover, accepting them deprives hostile governments of precious human resources and strengthens our position in the international war of ideas against Putin and other authoritarians. Refugees from allied countries, such as Ukraine, can also help their home countries by sending remittances home and promoting political liberalization; studies indicate that having a diaspora in advanced liberal democracies often has a liberalizing effect on countries of origin. Given all of these benefits, we argue that there should be no cap on the number of privately sponsored refugees—or, if political factors dictate, the cap should be very generous.
Adopting a version of the Canadian system could also save taxpayers’ money. Canadian private sponsors often spend $28,000 or more to support refugees and their families in that crucial first year (roughly what the government spends on the refugees it helps). Sponsored refugees are not eligible for social assistance during the sponsorship period, unless the sponsor breaks their agreement, in which case the government may demand repayment from the sponsoring group.
Canada’s private sponsorship system has flaws. Limiting the program, as Canada does in some cases, to people who meet the strict definition of a refugee, as established by the United Nations, is arguably too onerous. The UN definition only covers those whose “life or freedom would be threatened because of [their] race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”. Many people fleeing war, as opposed to repression based on race or religion – including many Ukrainian migrants today – do not fit these parameters. The United States would do well to omit these limitations.
Private resettlement of refugees would allow the United States to augment its damaged refugee system, thereby helping many more people, saving taxpayers money, and advancing United States strategic and economic interests. The United States should learn from Canada’s example — and improve on it.