U.S. citizens have a certain amount of power to sponsor foreign-born people to obtain visas for permanent U.S. residence, otherwise known as green cards. However, the allowed sponsor is in most cases a family member or employer, who initiates the immigration process by filing a "petition" for the would-be immigrant. Many Americans who are concerned about the plight of people fleeing violence or war wonder whether they can individually sponsor them as refugees, but the answer is in most cases no, as we'll discuss below.
NOTE: There is a partial exception with regard to Ukraine. Under a program called "Uniting for Ukraine," the Biden Administration will accept 100,000 Ukrainians to the U.S. through a legal designation known as "humanitarian parole" (as was also offered to some people who'd fled Afghanistan). Qualifying for this remedy will require financial sponsorship from a private source, such as a U.S. citizen or other individual with legal status in the United States (such as a green card holder or asylee). Applicants will also need to complete vaccinations and other public health requirements, and pass security screening. Thus far, an approved entry via humanitarian parole does not lead to any permanent U.S. immigration status; it merely allows recipients to stay for two years and receive a work permit. But there's nothing to stop them from applying for asylum within the U.S. or applying for some other immigration benefit, such as an employment-based or family-based green card (if they can find a sponsor in one of those categories). For more information directly from the U.S. Department of State, visit https://www.dhs.gov/ukraine.
Under U.S. as well as international law, a refugee is a person who has fled his or her country because of persecution. The law sets forth separate application and processing procedures for two types of refugees: those who come to the United States as part of the refugee admissions program, and those who apply for asylum on their own, after reaching the United States.
Both types must show that they fit the international legal definition of a refugee. Once granted, however, those who came through the refugee admissions process are commonly referred to as "refugees," and those who applied inside the U.S. (either affirmatively or in removal proceedings) are called "asylees."
When persecution forces people to leave home and seek international protection, they often register with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
The UNHCR is a specialized U.N. agency with special authority to decide whether someone is a refugee. A person must first register for refugee status, and then go through a refugee status determination interview and process. At the end of that, the UNHCR makes a decision.
If the UNHCR decides the person is a refugee, there are several options that the agency can pursue—none of which involve finding personal sponsors. The process is more akin to having a national government serve as a sponsor.
The UNHCR will try to find what it calls a durable solution. This means asking what will be best for that person and for the specific refugee situation. This could mean trying to provide a way for that person to return back to his or her country. It could be that the host country, where the refugee is staying, can allow him or her to live there permanently. If those solutions are not available, the UNHCR will sometimes pursue resettlement, asking another country to accept the person as a refugee and allow him or her to live there permanently.
The United States has historically always been a resettlement country. However, the U.S. president sets an upper limit. It went down to 15,000 during the Trump years (the lowest number of accepted refugees since 1977). President Biden has since been slowly raising it, and set it at 125,000 for 2024.
In times past, there were methods by which private citizens or churches could sponsor a refugee. For instance, there was a program called the Private Sector Initiative (PSI), which began in 1986. Under this program, the U.S. president declared that a certain number of refugees could be sponsored by the private sector.
Over 16,000 refugees were resettled through this program before it closed down. There is no such sponsorship program today in the U.S., although similar programs exist in Canada and other countries around the world. But keep reading for suggestions on helping refugees AFTER they arrive in the United States.
Refugees who come to the United States must come through the federally funded refugee admissions program. Once they're here, this program hands them over to a voluntary agency for assistance. This is a term used to refer to a handful of nonprofits that have signed agreements with the federal government to provide refugee resettlement services.
Among the services these agencies provide are picking refugees up at the airport, helping them find employment, providing housing, and helping them learn English. That's where ordinary citizens can potentially play a role.
There are plenty of ways to help refugees in the United States and abroad. The organizations that resettle refugees often ask for funding and for volunteers. For instance, they might need people to offer their time to help refugees navigate new things like U.S. grocery stores or the DMV, or to put a family, or an unaccompanied child up in their home for a while, or offer an unused rental space, or provide tutoring.
The following organizations help resettle refugees in the United States: Church World Service, Episcopal Migration Services, Ethiopian Community Development Council, HIAS, International Rescue Committee, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and World Relief.
There are also many organizations that work with refugees abroad, including those who are newly displaced from their homes and countries. These organizations, like the UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), work directly with people in refugee camps.
Another way to help is to advocate for the refugee admissions program. The United States has always prided itself on its ability to help people fleeing violence and persecution. You might be familiar with the examples of refugees from South Vietnam, from Cuba, and those who fled the breakdown of the Soviet Union.
But people continue to flee violence and persecution today, in numbers higher than they've ever been. People who want to help refugees will need to use their democratic voice and let their elected officials know that they value the refugee admissions program.
Lastly, remember that people who are seeking asylum here in the United States are asking the government to decide that they are refugees. When U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) or the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) grant asylum, they are saying that the person who is applying fits the international definition of a refugee, used both in international law and in U.S. law.
There are many ways to help sponsor persons who are applying for, or who have been granted, asylum. There are community organizations and nonprofits working in many cities around the country to help people who are seeking asylum (including many of the nonprofits that help resettle refugees). They seek everything from donations to office help to providing a foster home to a young asylee.