Cuban migrant Mario Perez holds his wife as they wait to be processed to seek asylum after crossing the border into the United States, Friday, Jan. 6, 2023, near Yuma, Ariz. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

President Joe Biden can’t do much on immigration without getting sued. His proposed plan to slow the flow of asylum-seekers—requiring petitioners to apply before reaching the border or be prevented from entering—prompted the American Civil Liberties Union to guarantee a lawsuit upon the proposal’s formal approval. His program to provide a pathway for the surge of people fleeing Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela—offering them up to two years of temporary “humanitarian parole” status—is already being litigated by 20 Republican state attorneys general.  

But there is one thing Biden is doing to fix our immigration system that isn’t at risk of being struck down in the courts, let alone attracting controversy: Welcome Corps. Under this State Department program launched in January, groups of five or more Americans can sponsor refugees vetted by the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) and help them permanently resettle in their communities. 

Often, a prospective immigrant needs to know a family member, friend, or employer in America who can provide financial support in order to gain entry. Refugees, typically identified by the United Nations as needing safe harbor from persecution, don’t usually have a personal contact in America. Instead, USRAP works with nonprofit organizations (often faith-based), such as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, and the historically Jewish HIAS, to aid resettlement. USRAP had been settling refugees only where those organizations have a physical presence. Welcome Corps potentially renders those limitations moot, making it possible for any American, anywhere in the county, to help refugees seek their American Dream. 

“Welcome Corps is one of the boldest innovations in the resettlement system since the creation of the program in the 1980s,” Matthew La Corte, the Niskanen Center’s government affairs manager for immigration policy, told me. “A refugee with a sponsor group will have immediate access to a much larger social network of people in their new county,” he added, “Ultimately, that’s going to lead to more refugees, but it’s also going to lead to refugees who are finding self-sufficiency faster than they are at the moment.” 

Welcome Corps begins alongside a surge of hiring by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (part of the Homeland Security Department) to help process refugee cases, rebuilding a program that had been asphyxiated. The Trump administration severely ratcheted down refugee admissions, from slightly under 85,000 in Barack Obama’s final full fiscal year—October 2015 to September 2016—to just above 11,000 in Trump’s last fiscal year. With fewer refugees to process, the USCIS workforce shrank, and dozens of nonprofit refugee agencies closed, reducing resettlement capacity by 38 percent, according to the Center for American Progress.  

Rebuilding what Trump tore down will take time. The Biden administration has raised the cap on annual refugee admissions to 125,000, but the upper bound won’t be immediately met. The Niskanen Center reported that the USCIS’s Refugee Corps, who travel abroad and vet refugee applicants, is now staffing up and getting back to work in earnest. In fiscal year 2020, only 1,375 interviews were conducted, a massive collapse from the 125,485 conducted four years prior. In the current year, the Refugee Corps is on pace to complete 80,000. That does not mean 80,000 refugees will be admitted this year—not every applicant will clear the background check and have their claims favorably adjudicated—but it is a sign that the program is rebounding. If we only look at the arrival numbers for the first five months of this fiscal year, we are on a pace of admitting about 30,000 refugees by the end of the fiscal year. But La Corte said the underlying data suggests arrival numbers “are about to surge” for the second half of the fiscal year, and barring unforeseen events, “we should see a lot closer to 125,000 refugees in fiscal year 2024.” 

The Welcome Corps program is too new for interested sponsors to already receive certification. Still, the State Department has set a public goal of approving 10,000 Welcome Corps sponsors to help at least 5,000 refugees by the end of the year. A representative from Welcome Corps informed me that more than 29,000 people have already requested information about becoming sponsors. And the program is set to widen its reach quickly. In the initial stage, certified sponsors will be assigned refugees they don’t know personally. Later this year, Welcome Corps will allow sponsors to recommend candidates they know for resettlement, subject to USRAP approval. 

Ten thousand Welcome Corps sponsors can’t be expected to solve the entirety of the immigration issue. The number of encounters between the Border Patrol and southern border crossers in fiscal year 2022 was a whopping 2.4 million. During the Obama presidency, the average number of annual such encounters was 500,000. For the first three years of the Trump presidency (excluding the dip in the pandemic year of 2020), the average was 638,000.  

Traditionally, southern border crossers mainly come from Mexico and the nearby “Northern Triangle” nations of Honduras, Guatemala, or El Salvador. But Biden is experiencing an explosion of migrants from farther-flung countries with failing governments and pandemic-ravaged economies, most notably Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. In 2022, the Border Patrol arrested about 950,000 people from countries other than Mexico and the Northern Triangle. Before 2021, that number was never higher than 77,000 and usually much lower.  

Many of these migrants are seeking asylum from various forms of persecution. (Biden ended the Trump policy of narrowing the definition of asylum to exclude those fleeing gang violence or domestic abuse.) Under the law, asylum seekers have a right to have their claims adjudicated, belying the argument that all who cross the border are inherently “illegal.” But to call the asylum system overwhelmed is an understatement. According to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, 1.6 million asylum applicants are awaiting hearings. With only about 600 immigration judges to hear their cases, the estimated average wait time is over four years. (The Biden administration has instituted a program for expedited hearings, and now thousands more cases are taking less than 18 months to complete.) Moreover, not all asylum-seekers meet the criteria for asylum. In fiscal year 2022, the grant rate was only 46 percent, and that’s higher than in the Trump years.  

This surge of asylum-seekers—who have not gone through the laborious vetting of the refugee process or visa process and do not have American sponsors waiting for them—is what has strained the capacity of municipal governments, from El Paso to New York City, to provide work and shelter while their cases are slowly processed. 

Biden is trying to steer the migrant flow away from the chaotic asylum process towards more orderly pathways. But his new Welcome Corps initiative, as part of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, is not positioned to handle the immediate border influx. The goal of USRAP is permanent resettlement. In turn, applicants undergo a thorough vetting process that, on average, takes between one-and-a-half and two years. The program largely resettles people from outside Latin America; the most represented countries are the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, Myanmar, and Sudan. 

To manage the glut of asylum-seekers at the border, Biden is resorting to an expansion of “humanitarian parole,” which is not quite asylum and not quite refugee resettlement. Parolees can enter America on an emergency basis for up to two years, though during that period they can try to gain legal status and stay longer. As with refugees (but not asylees), before entering America parolees need sponsors who pledge to provide financial support. But unlike Welcome Corps sponsors, parole sponsors must name exactly who they are pledging to support on their application. 

Biden has created parole programs for a small set of specific countries. In response to the Russia invasion, United for Ukraine has brought in 113,000 Ukrainian refugees since April 2022. Hoping to replicate that success, another parole program was created in January for people from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. Unlike the Ukraine program, the southern border program is capped at 30,000 people per month. Is that cap stingy? Not necessarily. According to data compiled by the Cato Institute, the average number of monthly border arrests of people from those countries, from March 2020 to October 2022 (covering both a thin year migration in 2020 and the surge year of 2022) was about 27,000. And in February, the federal government reported the program had paroled 22,755 migrants into America, short of the limit.  

On the other hand, The Washington Post recently shared stories of people trying to get into America but having difficulty scheduling appointments on the federal government’s new mobile app, suggesting the eligible are being thwarted by faulty technology. But those using the app include both parole-seekers for those designated countries and asylum-seekers from across the hemisphere. “The app isn’t the problem here,” Lanae Erickson, Third Way’s senior vice president for social policy, education, and politics, told me. “The problem is that we’ve got a tenfold increase in the number of people applying and we don’t have the people to process them.” Still, she sympathizes with Biden’s attempt to end the border crush and establish an orderly process. Pointing to a recent investigation by The New York Times that found many minors who cross the border unaccompanied are being illegally exploited for cheap labor, Erickson said, “They’re ending up working in factories in overnight shifts … which is why the Biden administration is saying: Stay where you are right now and apply from there, so when you come in, we can get you settled appropriately.” 

If the new humanitarian parole program survives legal challenges, then one way it could accommodate more migrants is by incorporating the Welcome Corps model, allowing American volunteers to sponsor parolees even if they don’t know who they are in advance. However, when I spoke to immigration experts, I heard a range of views about that goal’s feasibility and desirability. 

La Corte of the Niskanen Center cautions that exporting the Welcome Corps model may not be that simple, because the parole program, managed by the Homeland Security Department, and the refugee program, managed by the State Department, “are two distinct programs. There are similarities in the languages that we use … But they are legally and functionally distinct.” 

Alicia Wrenn, the senior director of resettlement & integration at HIAS, expressed hope that Welcome Corps could strengthen the capacity of USRAP so that we could reduce the use of humanitarian parole. After all, humanitarian parole is an emergency designation and not a firm pathway to resettlement. “HIAS believes that the parole option has been damaging to many because it leaves people in a state of limbo,” said Wrenn. Parolees “have to engage lawyers to figure out what the next steps are.”  

In January, when Biden first proposed the expansion of humanitarian parole, along with restricted access to asylum, immigration advocate Vanessa Cárdenas of America’s Voice expressed support for “expanding alternative legal pathways” but strongly condemned “slamming the door to more asylum seekers while cracking open a few windows.” When I spoke to her, she saw the potential of Welcome Corps as “a great example of how the government can work with local communities” and tap into “the desire of folks to be welcoming.” Asked if Welcome Corps could eventually serve humanitarian parolees, Cárdenas responded, “I think it can definitely carry over … The more success it shows, the more chances we have to replicate it.” 

That sentiment strikes me as most salient. The one consistent view I heard from everyone with whom I spoke is that Welcome Corps is a fantastic idea. In and of itself, the concept of Americans volunteering to sponsor migrants and help settle them in their communities sparks little of the controversy that is so common with the immigration issue. To what extent Welcome Corps can fix our backlogged immigration system and depolarize the immigration debate may not be known at this point. But let’s make sure as many Americans as possible know about Welcome Corps and let’s see how far it can go.  

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Bill Scher

Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.