Best Defense

The U.S. should be more like Canada and allow private refugee sponsorship

Through private sponsorship, Canadians are seeing firsthand how refugees can integrate. America should follow the example.


By Jacqueline Lopour
Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted

A six-year-old boy from New York named Alex recently wrote a letter to President Obama, offering to open his home and family to the “boy who was picked up by the ambulance in Syria.” Alex asked the president to “please go get him and bring him” to his home, promising to welcome him with balloons, introduce him to friends at school, share his toys, teach him to ride a bike, and “give him a family.”

In Canada, Alex’s family could do exactly that. Canada’s model allows average citizens and community groups to take a personal hand in saving refugee families fleeing crises, conflict, or persecution. In this model, community organizations or small groups of citizens take financial and social responsibility for individual refugees or families during their first year in Canada. Sponsors greet their refugees at the airport, help them find housing and jobs, and provide them with emotional and social support as they integrate into Canadian society.

The U.S. government does not have a formal private sponsorship program in place — but it should. The State Department reportedly is considering a pilot program for 2017, but U.S. leaders need to make widespread implementation an immediate priority.

If such a program existed in the United States, families like Alex’s would have the power to do more than merely express outrage online over heartbreaking photos of innocent victims of war. Instead, they could take personal responsibility for resettling a refugee family and help them obtain the skills they need to successfully integrate with their new American community. Private sponsors also would help to shoulder responsibility for some of the financial costs associated with resettling refugees.   

In the United States, potential sponsors — as they do in Canada — could either request to sponsor specific refugees or refugee families or, alternatively, offer to sponsor a family identified by the government or the U.N. Refugee Agency from a pool of applicants who have been carefully screened and vetted. In Canada, this process has helped private citizens take initiative for addressing the refugee crisis while safely and responsibly addressing legitimate concerns about terrorism.

The Canadian program has yielded benefits that would help address many of the problems the United States struggles with, such as domestic racism and xenophobia. Private sponsorship allows Canadians to see refugees as individuals and valuable additions to their communities, instead of a nameless group of potential threats hiding “terrorists-in-waiting.” The program is in Canada’s own self interest. Canadians are seeing firsthand how refugees are adding talent to Canada’s workforce, becoming entrepreneurs, and helping to grow the economy by creating jobs, not taking them. In addition, the program has bolstered Canada and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s reputation on the world’s stage.

The program is wildly popular among everyday Canadians, with public demand to sponsor refugees outstripping the government’s ability to process new arrivals. As the letter from young Alex demonstrates, there are many in the United States who would also be eager to participate. The advocacy group Amnesty International recently conducted a survey that revealed that 71 percent of Americans would welcome refugees in America, with a whopping 42 percent willing to accept refugees into their homes and neighborhoods. That’s a potential private sponsorship pool of over 136 million people.

Such a program should have broad, bipartisan appeal. Not only do large swaths of the population support welcoming refugees, but there is precedent for both liberals and conservatives coming together in the United States to support this kind of program. During the Reagan administration, non-profit organizations helped shoulder the costs of resettling thousands of refugees, mostly from Cuba. Faith-based organizations have long played an informal role in helping refugees integrate into their new communities, and a private refugee sponsorship program would allow them and other organizations to step up to make a difference in this crisis in a way that still mitigates concerns about terrorism.

The United States often tries to portray itself as the world’s leading champion of human rights, but we are allowing fear to paralyze us in the face of unprecedented crises affecting millions of innocent people. Canada’s system shows that there is a better way. It is time for our dysfunctional political system to get out of the way of Americans like six-year-old Alex and his family, and provide a formal mechanism that allows him and others like him to adopt refugee families into their homes and communities.

Jacqueline Lopour spent 10 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, specializing in South Asia and the Middle East.  She currently works at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, an non-partisan think tank in Waterloo, Ontario, where she focuses on the global refugee crisis. She holds the CIA chair in the Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted.

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Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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