Sponsor Circles: How a Program Designed as an Emergency Response Can Transform the U.S. Resettlement System

Sponsor Circles, a new initiative led by a private-sector coalition in partnership with the U.S. government that seeks to connect community sponsor groups with Afghan refugees, launched last month to great fanfare. Cabinet secretaries, members of Congress, resettlement agencies like the International Rescue Committee, companies like Airbnb, and advocacy groups applauded the program, which was launched in a matter of weeks to support Afghan refugees arriving in the U.S. The Sponsor Circles program effectively capitalizes on the historic outpouring of support from the American people for the Afghan refugees who fled the Taliban in the last few months. 

It should come as no surprise that we at Niskanen are excited about the program’s launch, given that we have been vocal champions for increasing private-sector engagement in the resettlement program since September 2015. But Sponsor Circles is not private sponsorship in the traditional sense, and that distinction is worth teasing out, both to better place Sponsor Circles in its appropriate context and to understand how scaling the program can bring long-term improvements to the U.S. resettlement system. 

The Sponsor Circle program is a tailored initiative empowering Americans to provide direct resettlement services to those who fled Afghanistan and are currently in the United States on military bases. It’s the most direct outlet for the American people to get involved in resettlement. It will bring personalized resettlement services to Afghans and marks the first phase of a larger effort from the Biden administration to build a robust private sponsorship program in the U.S. next year. 

Sponsor circles as emergency response 

The Sponsor Circles program was created to fix a specific problem: how to responsibly move tens of thousands of Afghans from the U.S. military bases where they have been temporarily housed into communities at a time when resettlement agencies lack the capacity to do the job alone. 

As CNN explained, “the abrupt arrival of evacuees strained already-overwhelmed refugee resettlement agencies and left both the administration and organizations scrambling to find permanent homes in a housing crunch.” Sponsor Circles helps solve this issue by allowing groups of at least five adults to join together in forming a certified sponsor circle that will be matched with an Afghan newcomer, providing them with initial reception and integration services. 

All Afghans served through Sponsor Circles will need to opt-in and accept that their initial resettlement services will not come via a traditional resettlement agency. This empowers the refugees to decide whether they want to leave the bases faster if a sponsorship circle slot opens up before a resettlement agency opening. 

Sponsors are expected to secure housing for the refugees (Airbnb.org has offered housing credits) and provide basic necessities. They should also help refugees to find legal, medical, and language services,  enroll children in school,  search for and begin new jobs, and  get oriented to the community, and more. The commitment is for a minimum of 90 days, the same amount of time as resettlement agencies are funded to assist with the initial reception and placement of refugees. We expect that commitment to last longer, and hope the friendship and community connections formed through Sponsor Circles can last a lifetime. 

Sponsor Circles are about capacity building — a bolstering of the domestic resettlement infrastructure. This shot in the arm is necessary because the system itself is weak after four years of the Trump administration’s concerted effort to sabotage the resettlement program. The Afghanistan exodus happened at arguably the lowest point in resettlement capacity in a generation. 

Mark Hetfield, the president and CEO of HIAS, a refugee resettlement agency, explained, “we just didn’t have the capacity after the beating we took under the Trump administration.” 

The large number of Afghans arriving in the U.S. would have strained the resettlement system at any point, but having it happen just months into the Biden presidency caught the resettlement apparatus understaffed and underinvested. It’s a case study of how one administration can do years-long damage to institutions it seeks to undermine. 

The government brought Afghans to bases where processing and immediate housing could be addressed, but the Department of Defense wants to swiftly move these refugees into their new communities. Sponsor Circles are meant to serve as a pressure release valve, tapping community members to provide resettlement capacity while the agencies are still rebuilding.

Sponsor circles as the foundation of private sponsorship 

This year, the Biden administration has repeatedly said that they intend to create a private sponsorship program for refugees in 2022. Some have seen the launch of Sponsor Circles as the administration delivering an underwhelming product after months of teasing plans for private sponsorship. But this is the wrong way to think about Sponsor Circles. 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted in a statement that Circles “expands the State Department’s efforts to grow the use of community sponsorship programs in resettlement,  including the new private sponsorship pilot program for refugees that the State Department plans to launch next year.” 

Blinken’s drawing that distinction is meaningful: Sponsor Circles is not private sponsorship as normally considered, but does feature similar elements. As I said above, Sponsor Circles is a response to the current crisis, elevating the role community groups can play to support Afghan families. 

But it also lays the foundation upon which private sponsorship could be built. A robust private sponsorship program would allow Americans to sponsor any refugee population, not just Afghans; extend the timeline for support beyond 90 days; focus on refugees outside the U.S., not just those on stateside bases; and more. Sponsor Circles is limited in scope — by design. 

For charities, diaspora groups, universities, or family members of refugees, the Sponsor Circle program may seem like a disappointment with tight limitations on how to sponsor refugees. But the Biden administration has been clear throughout this year that they never planned to launch private sponsorship until early 2022. Sponsor Circles gives Americans the opportunity to directly resettle refugees for the first time since the early 1990s, and that’s a massive step forward in democratizing the resettlement system long-term. 

To create the Sponsor Circle program, the federal government partnered with the Community Sponsorship Hub, a new organization that the nonprofit Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors launched. The Hub was launched to carry out sponsorship: creating training materials for sponsors, developing an application process, and more. All of that work will make building the full private sponsorship program that much easier in the coming months. 

Sponsor Circles is an emergency response, but the work being done to stand this program up would have had to happen to launch any sponsorship program. The timeline for full private sponsorship is likely moved up, not slowed down, by Sponsor Circles. 

Finally, this whole-of-society approach not only benefits the resettled refugees, but will provide organic links between members of the same community. Sponsor Circles can coordinate the efforts of community members who all want to help refugees but were previously unacquainted. It is both a best practice to welcome newcomers and a method of knitting communities together, including military veterans, who have shown a deep commitment to the Afghanistan evacuation. Building these bonds within neighborhoods across the country makes for healthier communities and expanded social networks, good for refugees and sponsors alike. 

Conclusion 

Sponsor Circles was launched last month and the first refugees have not yet been matched with the first sponsors. There is a long way to go in implementing the program successfully, but the progress made to date is a testament to those inside and outside the government who only began building the Sponsor Circle infrastructure in August. 

However, advocates should remain steadfast in pushing the administration towards a full, matched and named private sponsorship program in 2022 for all populations while it continues to build the infrastructure necessary for Sponsor Circles to succeed. We must hold them accountable to their FY22 target while ensuring that Sponsor Circles work for both the refugees they serve and the community groups that choose to take on this responsibility. 

The Sponsor Circle program is a historic innovation in the refugee resettlement space. It’s the first time the government has tapped communities for direct resettlement responsibilities since the early ‘90s. We should recognize that step forward and the steps that still need to be taken, and realize that Sponsor Circles exists because of a broken resettlement apparatus caught off-guard after being beaten down by an anti-refugee administration.

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