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It’s estimated that Minnesota has welcomed more than 100,000 refugees since the 1970s. From 1980 to now, that work has largely been done by resettlement agencies.
But come April, the process for some will be more reminiscent of what happened in the 1970s: After the fall of Saigon, private citizens sponsored Vietnamese refugee families. They paid for necessities and connected them with resources while they gained their footing in the United States.
President Biden is calling his present-day sponsorship program Welcome Corps.
On All Things Considered this week, Annie Nolte-Henning spoke more about the program. She’s director of the Americas for Alight, a Minnesota humanitarian aid organization.
What kind of response have you been hearing, from agencies here and elsewhere?
Resettlement agencies and the state of Minnesota have had to do so much with quite little the past few years, and they’ve really been stretched over the past 18 months with the amount of Afghans and Ukrainians who have arrived—on top of our traditional resettlement numbers.
During this really unprecedented time, I think Alight and resettlement agencies in the state recognize that we can’t do it all alone. It really is going to take all of us to welcome and provide the support to the thousands of refugees around the world that need our help.
I want to talk about the refugee crisis this new program hopes to address. Paint a picture of what that actually means.
In the past 18 months, 80,000 Afghans have come to the United States. On top of that, 125,000 Ukrainians have now arrived to the Uniting for Ukraine program, which also requires sponsorship.
And that is on top of Central Americans, East Africans, people from all over the globe that have been waiting decades for resettlement. So I think that this is really the time that a bold innovation like Welcome Corps is really needed.
Welcome Corps is a relatively new program. What are you hearing about how it will work?
Sponsor groups consists of five individuals who really work to help give refugees permanent homes here in the United States. Much of the work that goes into that are things like: making sure children can get enrolled into school, ensuring that families get set up for health insurance and public benefits, helping families find jobs and a stable place to live.
There is a financial obligation for sponsor groups; it’s a little over $2,000 per person in a family. And I will say, anecdotally, that as you talk to sponsor groups who have done this already, raising the money is the easiest part, because so many people want to be able to help in this effort.
And what kind of training will sponsors receive? It can be hard for U.S.-born people to navigate some of the systems that refugees may have.
Each sponsor group gets hands-on support from what we call an Alight guide throughout the entire sponsorship journey.
So as soon as a sponsor group signs up, they are assigned to sponsor guide who does frequent check-ins and weekly Q&A sessions. And our guides are often people who have experienced displacement themselves and speak the same language as a lot of the newcomers.
What countries do we expect the refugees to be coming from for this program?
It’s my understanding that they will first focus exclusively on refugees from African countries. There are so many refugee families around the world that have been waiting decades for resettlement.
So this new program really levels out the playing field to allow refugees facing all sorts of crises—regardless of what’s in the headlines at this moment—an opportunity to come through sponsorship.
Are there protections here to make sure that vulnerable people aren’t being put in bad situations, like scams or human trafficking?
There is extensive vetting on both sides. All refugees that come through Welcome Corps have already gone through the application process of refugee resettlement.
And then on the United States side, there’s an extensive vetting process for all sponsors with three different types: background checks, criminal background checks, and [checking the] sex offender registry. Just to really ensure that we are safeguarding some of the most vulnerable families from falling into bad hands.
What if a sponsor lives in a part of the state where there may not be as many resources when it comes to languages, jobs?
With Ukrainian families, most have been in the Twin Cities. But it’s been incredible to see how many different groups are popping up. I think almost every county in Minnesota now has at least one sponsor group.
But it’s definitely something that we take into account. We really recommend, when a sponsor group pops up in a more rural area, that they work to find yet another sponsor group so that families aren’t out there alone and they really are able to build that community as they get settled in.