Speaker: This is The Takeaway, with Melissa Harris-Perry from WNYC and PRX, in collaboration with GBH News in Boston.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Earlier this month, the Biden administration announced a new initiative called Welcome Corps. The policy allows groups of at least five private citizens or legal residents to sponsor a refugee, for just over $2,000. This marks a substantial reorientation of the four-decade-old refugee process here in the US by giving significant logistical and financial authority to private citizens.
The state department's goal is to match refugees from Ukraine, Afghanistan, Venezuela, and other nations, with US sponsors, who will help them to find housing, transportation, child school enrollment, and employment. Mark Hetfield is President and CEO of HIAS. Welcome to the show, Mark.
Mark Hetfield: Thank you, Melissa. It's good to be here.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What's the work of HIAS?
Mark Hetfield: HIAS is the oldest refugee organization in the world. We were founded at the end of the 19th century, in New York, to help Jews who were fleeing antisemitism and pogroms in Europe. We like to say we used to help refugees, because they were Jewish, today, we help refugees because we are Jewish, and we are an international organization that also has a resettlement network across the United States, working in partnership, mostly with Jewish family service agencies, to welcome refugees to local communities, in partnership with the State Department.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Okay. It sounds to me like HIAS has been doing some of this Welcome Corps work already. Help me to understand what is different about the implementation of this policy.
Mark Hetfield: Sure. This is a revolutionary change. The US Refugee Program was started in 1980, because at that time, we were facing a large number of refugees coming into this country from Southeast Asia, from the Soviet Union at the time, from Iran. The program was formalized in partnership with nine national refugee agencies, six of which are faith-based, one of which was HIAS. We each had networks across the country to welcome and receive refugees in partnership with the State Department.
It became a very formalized program, very professionalized program. The challenge is that there are communities, there are individuals, in cities and towns, who are not close to places where we have refugee resettlement sites, and they were shut out of the refugee program. What the Welcome Corps does is, it allows people in places where we don't have sites to form groups, or to have congregations, form their own welcome circle to welcome refugees into their community.
It really expands our national capacity to welcome refugees. It opens it up more to the grassroots, and it's largely based on a model that's been successfully used in Canada for many years.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Can you say more about the Canadian model?
Mark Hetfield: Sure. Canada, like the United States, has a formal resettlement program that is funded by the government, but they also have a parallel program of private sponsorship, where private individuals can get together, form groups, to welcome individual refugee families into their towns and cities.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right, y'all. We have to take a break. More of this conversation in just a moment.
You're back with The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and I'm still in conversation with Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS. Help me to understand what aspects-- I hear you saying resettlement. Is this related to a broader question of the availability of refugee status? I'm wondering, in other words, does it open up the possibility of more individuals, more families, being able to in fact find refuge?
Mark Hetfield: It should. The refugee resettlement program is often confused with the asylum program. Both of these programs help people who are fleeing, based on a well-founded fear of persecution. The difference is, in the asylum program, they somehow come here on their own and apply for protection. In the refugee resettlement program, the United States government actually defines who, outside of the United States, is eligible to apply for this protection.
They then apply for this protection, they're interviewed to see if they meet the refugee definition and if they clear security vetting. Once they've gone through all those hurdles, they're then brought to the United States, by the United States government. It's a very controlled program. It's subject to an annual ceiling that's set by the president, in consultation with Congress. The ceiling right now is 125,000, but last year, only 25,000 refugees were actually admitted.
The United States government is currently trying to build up its resettlement capacity, both in terms of processing overseas, as well as the capacity to receive refugees here in the United States, because that capacity had really been eviscerated under the last presidential administration.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Okay. Mark, here's my worry. I am cranky. On the one hand, I'm a good old-fashioned church lady, who sees groups of people come together to do good in their community all the time. On the other hand, I've also seen really good-spirited, goodhearted programs fall to the wayside in the collective action problems. The durability, the length of time that HIAS has been around, is one thing.
I'm a little worried about leaving this kind of work to private citizens. I'm torn between wanting more private citizens in this space, and also thinking what are the accountability measures, if these small groups don't follow through?
Mark Hetfield: That's a very legitimate question. That's exactly why HIAS is involved, we want to make sure that the small groups are getting the support that they need to do this successfully, that it's done consistently, that refugees don't have a very different experience from group to group. HIAS is there, as are some other national refugee organizations, to help assist, like Church World Service, like the International Rescue Committee, to help make sure that those groups get the support they need for the follow-through.
It is a relatively short-term program. It's only a matter of months, and not years, that people get the support. The number one priority of the Refugee Resettlement Program in the United States is to make sure the refugees are self-sufficient as quickly as possible, so that they won't need that help beyond those initial few months. I do actually want to say, one thing that you said in the intro, which is true, which is factually correct, but a little misleading, which is the cost, which is $2,275 per person in a refugee family.
It actually costs much more than that. You have to demonstrate that to the United States, that you have those assets available to spend on the refugee. In fact, let's be honest, the cost of resettling a refugee is much more than that. Refugee welcome circles will be raising more money than that to cover the initial costs of entry after the refugee comes to the United States. Rent, getting the person ready for employment, getting the house stocked with food and furniture, those things cost much more than $2,275 per person.
At HIAS, we make sure that there is a welcome plan and that people have realistic expectations as to what level of funding they're going to have to raise in order to make this successful.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Mark, thank you for answering that. You anticipated my next question, which is-- Can this work really be done for $2,000 a person? Let me ask this. All programs need assessment. How will we, as a nation, know if Welcome Corps is successful?
Mark Hetfield: I think it's really important that the State Department, which is still overseeing the program, do monitoring and evaluation, not just for HIAS, but across the country, to assess how quickly people are getting employed, to actually ask their refugees about their own experience, and how they feel about the way they were resettled, how they're integrating and coping with their new life in their new country.
It's going to be really important to do that, and we hope to find out more as to how the state department's going to be doing that monitoring and sharing that data, very soon.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right. I just want to give you a last bite at this apple, Mark. Your organization has something special coming up. Tell us about Refugee Shabbat.
Mark Hetfield: Yes. Every year, since 2018, HIAS has organized an annual Refugee Shabbat, which means we work with Jewish congregations, originally across the country, but now across the world, to welcome refugees and to demonstrate that the Jewish community is a community that welcomes refugees across the country. This is our first one that is, basically, post-pandemic. We're excited to be able to do it in person once again.
I'll say we have, as of right now, 366 congregations in the United States signed up to celebrate Refugee Shabbat this week, and a total of 24 outside the United States.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Mark Hetfield is President and CEO of HIAS. Mark, thanks so much for taking the time with us today.
Mark Hetfield: Thank you, Melissa. Always a pleasure.
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