Which “Refugees” Are We Welcoming?

Which “Refugees” Are We Welcoming?

Resettlement in the United States has only gotten more arbitrary.


The process for selecting refugees to be resettled in the United States has long seemed arbitrary and unfair. For the most part, refugees were randomly picked by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to come here, while others in similar circumstances were left behind.

One couldn’t have expected that the selection process would get even more arbitrary.


Who is Welcoming Whom?

The Welcome Corps, a new program introduced by the Biden administration in January 2023, hands over the control of part of the resettlement process to refugee advocates in the United States (whether private individuals or organizations) and allows them to select their own refugees and future American citizens. Per U.S. immigration law, resettled refugees are required to apply for a green card one year after arrival and can apply for citizenship four years later (not five, as the five-year count for refugees starts on the day of arrival).

The Welcome Corps will not replace but instead complement the traditional resettlement process led by UNHCR and resettlement agencies—with the latter being religious or community-based organizations contracted by the Department of State to provide services to refugees once they’re here. As underlined by the Biden administration, this UN refugee agency with “the international mandate to provide protection to refugees worldwide, has historically referred the vast majority of [resettlement] cases to the United States.” This will not be the case under the Welcome Corps.

Under the new program, private individuals in the United States (backed by various non-governmental organizations) will take on the primary responsibility of selecting candidates for resettlement and then providing them with initial support once here. In fact, private sponsors do not even need to identify particular candidates for resettlement—the “Welcome Corps team” (i.e., non-profit organizations, including the above-mentioned resettlement agencies) will be in charge of matching sponsors with people to be resettled.

In effect, the Biden administration is handing the control of refugee selection and admission of future U.S. citizens to, not just a number of private individuals (including freshly arrived refugees), but to a powerful machine of non-profit organizations and philanthropists advocating for an increase in the number of refugees resettled here.

Here’s where it gets more puzzling: those picked for refugee resettlement under the Welcome Corps do not even need to be refugees according to the UNHCR’s Refugee Status Determination, let alone that subset of refugees determined by the UN to be in “need of resettlement.” This was confirmed at a USCIS Refugee Processing Quarterly Engagement last March.

The UNHCR refugee selection and resettlement referral process is far from perfect, but it does fall under an internationally recognized system. While the UNHCR touts resettlement as a “critical lifeline” for some, it acknowledges that it is not the best option for most refugees; of the 21.3 million refugees under UNHCR’s mandate, it says only two million are in need of resettlement in 2023. And out of those two million, only a small proportion of refugees will end up being resettled, whether in the United States or other countries.

So if not based on the UNHCR’s designation, on what grounds are resettlement referrals by private sponsors and/or non-profits under the Welcome Corps made?

The Biden administration assures us that the Welcome Corps “will ultimately be a key part of the U.S. refugee resettlement system, providing a life-saving lifeline to vulnerable people in need of resettlement.” But, if private sponsors (and the organizations behind them) are not choosing “refugees in need of resettlement,” whom are they “saving”? Who exactly are they bringing here? Could they be simply choosing people based on friend/family ties? And how fair is this process to refugees who genuinely are in desperate need of this supposedly “critical lifeline” given their own circumstances?

Under the new program not only American citizens but also green card holders (likely including those with conditional two-year green cards) can act as private sponsors. This means that newly resettled refugees—who, as noted, are required to apply for a green card one year after arrival—can now decide who gets to follow them here and who gets a chance to become American. Not only that, but other newcomers who made it here in recent years and were granted green cards can now start sponsoring their friends, neighbors, and family members as “refugees.”

What’s more, those chosen for resettlement under the Welcome Corps receive preferential treatment; it can take “regular” refugees years to be resettled, while those who are privately sponsored are expected to make it in just “1-2 months” after their application has been approved.

The random selection of those who do not necessarily “need saving” but are nonetheless welcomed here is becoming a trend under the Biden administration—and this is without even referring to the border crisis. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken introduced the Welcome Corps as a program intended to “build on the extraordinary response of the American people over the past year in welcoming our Afghan allies, Ukrainians displaced by war… and others fleeing violence and oppression.”

Not-so-United for Ukraine

On the topic of Ukraine, there is another program called “Uniting for Ukraine.” It is a streamlined process put in place by the Biden administration to offer Ukrainian nationals, who fled their country following the 2022 Russian invasion, a chance to come to the United States straight from Europe under humanitarian parole, provided U.S.-based supporters agree to support them financially during their stay here. More than 125,000 Ukrainian nationals and their family members have been admitted under this process. And even though they were not formally admitted as “refugees,” they will be treated as “refugees” (as per H.R. 7691) and receive taxpayer-funded refugee resettlement benefits upon arrival.

On the first anniversary of this program, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas stated the following: “One year ago today, the United States Department of Homeland Security launched the groundbreaking and life-saving process known as Uniting for Ukraine.”

But how is it “life-saving”?

Ukrainians admitted to the United States are generally not fleeing a country of war but are coming from European countries in which they sought refuge and where they were granted “temporary protection”—which entails a residence permit, access to employment, housing, social welfare, medical treatment, education, etc. Actually, this “American welcome” could very well be a poisoned gift to many of those who are leaving Europe and its numerous protection benefits; stories of Ukrainians ending up homeless in the United States after their sponsors bailed on them have made headlines. The director of Catholic Charities told the New York Times that it was common for people to sign up as sponsors under Uniting for Ukraine “thinking, ‘I’m doing a good deed,’ but then really not following it up with anything.”

This program could very well be providing Ukrainian nationals with a pathway to the United States in order to pursue different opportunities than those offered by welcoming European countries; it could also simply be a means for reuniting with family or friends, or simply a way to access the American dream. But, for the most part, the program does not offer a “life-saving” way out of Ukraine’s war zones.

Abandoning Afghan Allies?

And consider the Afghan crisis. Despite the ongoing narrative, most of those who were evacuated following the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2021 were not American “allies”—i.e., Afghan nationals who risked their lives to help U.S. forces in Afghanistan. In fact, amid the chaos and the urgency, most had nothing to do with the U.S. government or any of its contractors; which means they were not Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) holders or applicants. (SIVs are for Afghan interpreters or “allies”—i.e., those who worked for or on behalf of the U.S. government and who faced a serious threat as a result of that employment.) Nor were the evacuees formally granted refugee status; hence, the use of parole as the entry ticket to the United States.

Those Afghan parolees can now sponsor their family members as “refugees” into the United States, following the launch of the Afghan Family Reunification Program designed by the Biden administration in January 2023. This is important because, unlike parolees whose status is in theory temporary, refugees are granted permanent resettlement. As such, why allow family reunification for Afghan parolees, since parole is meant to grant temporary protection only? And why give family members of parolees refugee status just because their relatives happened to be the ones who succeeded in boarding U.S. planes out of Afghanistan in the summer of 2021? What’s more, those who were randomly evacuated and ineligible for SIVs or asylum protection, but are able to sponsor relatives as refugees can, at some point, become green card holders or U.S. citizens via those very family members who were allowed to join them as refugees.

Furthermore, there are millions of Afghans who did not assist U.S. forces but who could nonetheless end up wanting to leave their country, fearful of Taliban rule. Should we “save” or “welcome” all of them as well? Is every Afghan wishing to leave his or her Taliban-governed country a potential refugee to be resettled in the United States?