WASHINGTON — The Biden administration announced a new program Thursday to allow thousands of American citizens to directly sponsor refugees financially, an effort to increase the United States' capacity to accept more people seeking protection from abroad.

In a statement, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken described the program, dubbed Welcome Corps, as "the boldest innovation in refugee resettlement in four decades."

"By launching the Welcome Corps, we build on a proud tradition of providing refuge and demonstrate the spirit and generosity of the American people as we commit to welcoming refugees in need of our support," Blinken said.

According to the State Department, which released details about the program, the government will begin matching private sponsors interested in participating with refugees who have already been approved to be resettled in the U.S. during the first six months of 2023.

In mid-2023, during the program's second phase, sponsors will be able to start referring potential refugees for resettlement and supporting them financially.

The State Department hopes to find at least 10,000 Americans willing to sponsor 5,000 refugees in the first year of the program. Private sponsors could include religious organizations, immigrant communities, educational institutions, businesses and others, Blinken said.

Sponsors must raise an initial amount of $2,275 per refugee to support them during their first three months in the country, intended to help with apartment deposits, furniture and other needed items. Refugees would then be eligible for other federal programs, according to a senior State Department official who briefed reporters Thursday.

Sponsors will also be vetted, required to develop a "welcome plan" on how they plan to help refugees find jobs and housing, and be subject to regular check-ins from refugee groups, the senior official said.

American sponsors will receive training from a group of refugee organizations, including the International Refugee Assistance Project and Church World Service, according to the State Department.

The private refugee sponsorship program echoes one already in place in Canada. The senior official said the program has been "wildly successful" in Canada and that the federal government received "a lot of advice" from Canadian officials when designing this program.

The sponsorship model comes as the U.S. has fallen far short in recent years of reaching its annual refugee admissions goals. Under the refugee admissions program created in 1980, presidential administrations set so-called refugee ceilings, or the number of refugees who may be admitted into the country.

Former President Donald Trump slashed the refugee admissions ceiling from 85,000 in fiscal 2016 — the last year set during the Obama administration — to 30,000 in fiscal 2019 and just 18,000 in fiscal 2020.

The Biden administration has set a refugee ceiling of 125,000 both this and last fiscal years, but has struggled to meet those goals, citing decimated resources.

The U.S. took in fewer than 26,000 refugees in fiscal 2022, which ended in September. Biden has again announced a goal to take in 125,000 refugees this fiscal year, but the U.S. took in fewer than 7,000 refugees during the first three months of the fiscal year, according to government data.

The senior State Department official said the private sponsorship program will be one several initiatives underway to improve the refugee admissions program and reach the Biden administration's target.

The program follows several other initiatives that rely on U.S. citizens to sponsor migrants. The Biden administration has also launched programs to allow people fleeing Ukraine, Haiti, Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua who have financial sponsors to come to the U.S. temporarily.

However, those programs only allow individuals from those nations to remain in the U.S. for up to two years under a temporary status, while the refugee program will offer foreign citizens a path to U.S. citizenship.

The private refugee program was met with fast praise from refugee organizations.

In a news release, Becca Heller, executive director of the International Refugee Assistance Project, called it a "once-in-a-generation opportunity to directly engage communities in the resettlement process and allow more refugees to find a safe place to call home."

Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a refugee resettlement agency, also praised the initiative and said it "complements the refugee resettlement system and boasts potential to strengthen ties between refugees and the communities they will come to call home."

She added that she hopes that the program "will be thoughtfully implemented to make certain that sponsors are sufficiently equipped with the necessary resources and know-how to ensure the best possible outcomes for refugee families in their care."

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