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In Biden's new refugee resettlement program, private citizens take the lead

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The number of refugees admitted to the United States is at a record low, yet there's a new program to assist them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTHONY BLINKEN: The State Department is launching the Welcome Corps, a private sponsorship program that will harness the generosity and goodwill of American citizens to resettle refugees.

SIMON: And that, of course, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, who went on to say that private citizens, churches, colleges and other groups will now take the lead on finding housing and education for refugees. Krish O'Mara Vignarajah heads up the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. She joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

KRISH O'MARA VIGNARAJAH: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: The U.S. admitted 25,000 refugees last year, even though the cap was 125,000. Were traditional resettlement agencies just strapped to try and help even those 25,000?

O'MARA VIGNARAJAH: Candidly, the answer is no. You know, for the last few years, the limitation hasn't been the ability to receive and resettle refugees, but it's been how few refugees are arriving. You obviously mentioned the 25,000 that arrived last year out of 125,000. The year before that, we only received 12,000 refugees against a cap of 62,500. So the infrastructure abroad has really been the fundamental problem of the resettlement system.

SIMON: The infrastructure abroad, meaning State Department offices and other agencies. Yeah.

O'MARA VIGNARAJAH: Right. So, you know, obviously, the pandemic curtailed embassies being open, the ability to conduct interviews in person. There's been some logistics of how do you manage the vetting of the refugees? But it has been the problem of how do we actually get individuals into the system processed and then admitted to come into the country?

SIMON: Does this new idea help?

O'MARA VIGNARAJAH: Well, it seems that what is old is new again because this pilot reverts to how refugee resettlement was done before it was professionalized into a federal program back in 1980. There are also things that private citizens can do better than anyone, like organizing a donation drive or helping furnish an apartment. But we do worry that sponsors may not be fully prepared or equipped for other responsibilities, like addressing the trauma that some refugees suffer when they come. There are complicated components of resettlement, like navigating the paperwork and bureaucracy involved in getting Social Security and benefits, getting work authorization, convincing local landlords to rent to a family with no credit history and sometimes having to provide a guarantee. And then finally, vetting the U.S. sponsors is as critical as vetting the refugees. In Europe, there have been cases of Ukrainian refugees falling prey to human traffickers, and to a lesser extent, we've seen this in the U.S. as well.

SIMON: Do you have any concerns that Welcome Corps, however well-intended, will just not give the people who are arriving the quality of service that that you would desire?

O'MARA VIGNARAJAH: I think it's an incredible complement or supplement to the traditional refugee resettlement program. But I do think that there are important reasons for why we chose to professionalize the system. I think we can never do that work alone. I think it's incredibly important to make sure that our clients are interacting and being supported by their neighbors. But that's where I think it's important to frame this as co-sponsorship, as opposed to just thinking that private citizens have to bear the responsibility entirely or principally on their own.

SIMON: I gather, too, in this new program, there are lots of fine points to observe, like you need a group of five people to commit to the program, and they have to raise over $2,000 per refugee. So that's inching up about $10,000 for a family of four.

O'MARA VIGNARAJAH: Our hope is always that - we created a federal program because we knew that fulfilling our global humanitarian responsibility required us to be a leader in refugee resettlement. Thankfully, there is a federal program that is well resourced. And so, you know, we certainly don't want the government to outsource this to private citizens. What we want to do is bring private citizens into this work because we also hear from them that this is life-changing work for them. But we don't want to burden people, and we don't want to limit how people can get involved because of financial constraints, for example.

SIMON: Number of refugees is far below the cap. What do you say to Americans who say, look, I don't want to be heartless; I believe in helping my neighbor, but we have a lot of people who are struggling in this country without throwing the doors open to take on more people?

O'MARA VIGNARAJAH: Well, I think there's certainly a moral argument about the responsibility. The U.S. has always been the global humanitarian leader, specifically in terms of refugee resettlement. But there is a self-interest involved. And investing in successfully resettling refugees is something that pays enormous dividends. For example, there was a study that was done looking at refugees specifically that showed that there is a net contribution of $63 billion even when you take into account the meager assistance that they receive initially. And so our point is, you know, we can lead the charge. We can take care of our citizens. We are a country that is prosperous and generous enough to be able to walk and chew gum. And I hope that we will continue to see the kind of commitment and bipartisan support that especially refugee resettlement has had for the last four decades.

SIMON: Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, CEO and president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. Thank you so much for being with us.

O'MARA VIGNARAJAH: Appreciate you having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.