These Groups Have An Idea To Help Syrian Refugees: Let People Sponsor Them

It's working in Canada.

WASHINGTON -- Some opponents to taking in more Syrian refugees argue it's simply too expensive. Refugees need significant help with housing, food, transportation, education and more when they get here, and they contend that the United States can't afford to help more people.

But what if outside groups -- community or religious organizations, cities, companies or even individuals -- foot the costs instead?

A coalition led by the Syrian American Council plans to send a letter to President Barack Obama on Wednesday asking him to consider creating a program for private sponsorship of Syrian refugees, the involved groups told The Huffington Post.

They don't want this to take away from government assistance -- in fact, they also proposed upping the government's admissions by 100,000 refugees -- but argue it could be a way for the citizens and organizations that want to step up to do so.

"Every single day we get phone calls from Americans who want to privately sponsor a refugee," said Omar Hossino of the Syrian American Council. "But since the private sponsorship is not legal, it's not an option, the government doesn't permit that, they're unable to do that."

The Syrian refugee crisis gained more national attention this summer, when images of men, women and children making long and dangerous trips to Europe dominated the news. One of the most striking symbols was a photo of 3-year-old Syrian Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach after drowning while his family tried to make it to Greece.

A paramilitary police officer carries the lifeless body of Alan Kurdi, 3, after a number of migrants died and a smaller number were reported missing after boats carrying them to the Greek island of Kos capsized.
A paramilitary police officer carries the lifeless body of Alan Kurdi, 3, after a number of migrants died and a smaller number were reported missing after boats carrying them to the Greek island of Kos capsized.
AP Photo/DHA

A number of human rights organizations and Democratic lawmakers urged the Obama administration to admit 100,000 Syrians and 100,000 other refugees this fiscal year, which began this month.

The Obama administration did increase its refugee admission numbers, although not nearly to that figure. The government will aim to admit 85,000 refugees total this fiscal year, including 10,000 from Syria, and 100,000 the following fiscal year, officials said.

Advocates for a private sponsorship program said they think citizens and groups would step up if the government admitted more people. A number of organizations that work on refugee resettlement have reported an influx of offers to help. Eighteen mayors pledged last month to take in more refugees if they were admitted into the U.S.

The fact that these calls are coming from Americans could make it more politically viable, said David Bier, director of immigration policy for Niskanen Center, the nonprofit libertarian think tank that helped draft the letter.

"It seems like an idea that's politically a no-brainer -- it's a lot easier to sell to the American people refugee resettlement if they know, hey, my neighbor is the one who wants these people who were brought over and it's not just something Washington cooked up," he said.

Along with the Syrian American Council, the letter was signed by Syrian American Medical Society, Syria Relief and Development, Arab American Institute, Turkish Heritage Organization, Muslim Public Affairs Council, Islamic Society of North America, Karam Foundation and Watan USA.

Canada could serve as an example. Private sponsorships in Canada have helped resettle more than 200,000 refugees since the program was created in 1979, according to the Canadian Council for Refugees. Groups there can sign on to sponsor refugees, typically with a commitment to provide for them for 12 months or until they become self-sufficient, if that happens first.

Earlier this year, Ryerson University in Toronto launched a challenge to the community to sponsor Syrian refugees. The response was so great that it has since expanded to include OCAD University, University of Toronto and York University. They are aiming to create 75 five-member teams that will sponsor 75 families, at an estimated cost of $27,000 per family.

Wendy Cukier, Ryerson University's vice president of research and innovation, said 400 students have volunteered, and the program has received $700,000 in donations along with commitments to double that funding. She is leading a sponsorship team herself.

"It's every faith, every walk of life. Canadians who have been here for generations and people who have been here for a short period of time," Cukier said of the volunteers and donors.

Private sponsorship of refugees has been done in the U.S. in the past, particularly for Cubans and Soviet Jews. But the current refugee system relies on public-private partnerships of a different kind. The government works with nine nongovernmental organizations in the U.S., and their affiliated offices, to resettle refugees.

Those organizations get money from the government to do so, but also rely on grants, donations and a number of volunteers.

Refugees sponsored by private organizations and individuals would still go through a normal screening process. That is currently slow -- often 18 to 24 months -- but the Niskanen Center has suggested that individuals be allowed to donate toward screenings as well, which they argue could make the process move faster without skipping any security or health checks.

There's been some support for the idea, at least in concept. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who has advocated for expanding refugee admissions, said in a statement that she would "welcome and support efforts by private organizations and individuals to resettle Syrian refugees."

But there's likely to be opposition from conservatives, since many Republicans don't want the U.S. to admit more refugees at all, regardless of whether it's privately funded. GOP members have proposed suspending refugee admissions completely, claiming it's not safe to allow Syrians in the country even if they undergo security screenings.

Supporters of refugee resettlement have concerns as well. Jen Smyers, who works with the Church World Service Immigration and Refugee Program, said she appreciates any efforts to advocate for more admission to the U.S. But she said there would need to be screenings to ensure none of the sponsors were traffickers and keep people accountable for commitments they made.

She said groups and private citizens can already sign up with nongovernmental organizations such as Church World Service to sponsor refugees, if they want to, and have the benefit of a network that is prepared for things like job placement and cultural orientation.

In the end, she said, private sponsorship would not fix the current lack of political will for bringing in more refugees, or the slow screening process.

"It would be creating a whole other program and it wouldn't be solving the problem that we're having right now," she said.

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