Mufalo Chitam, executive director of Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, said “we welcome anything that complements existing programs that are working and doesn’t supplant them.” Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Immigrant advocates in Maine are praising a new federal program that will enlist private citizens to help resettle refugees in the U.S., but some question how it will operate and interact with existing programs in a long-troubled immigration system.

The U.S. Department of State on Thursday launched the Welcome Corps, which aims to sign up 10,000 Americans to assist 5,000 refugees this year. The program will augment work traditionally done by nonprofit refugee resettlement agencies and tap community groups and individuals who helped to welcome thousands of Afghans, Ukrainians, Venezuelans and other newcomers in recent years, including here in Maine.

Under the program, groups of five or more Americans can apply to privately sponsor refugees, raising their own money and other support to help newcomers during their first 90 days in the country. Assistance would include greeting refugees at the airport, setting them up in apartments, helping them apply for jobs and enroll kids in school, and connecting them with essential community services.

Advocacy groups in Maine embraced the new effort and said it will help rebuild refugee resettlement programs that were greatly reduced under the previous administration.

“We welcome anything that complements existing programs that are working and doesn’t supplant them,” said Mufalo Chitam, executive director of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition.

But some questioned the durability of a program pitched as “a new, permanent way for Americans to welcome refugees from around the world.”


Chitam wondered whether the Welcome Corps would survive future political swings in the White House, especially when immigration policy has been in turmoil for decades.

“We need more hands on deck, but the refugee resettlement program is still recovering from setbacks during the Trump administration,” she said.

President Biden vowed in 2021 to restore the U.S. as the world’s haven for refugees and called for private sponsorship. Former President Donald Trump reduced annual refugee admissions to 18,000 by his last year in office, down from nearly 85,000 at the end of the Obama administration, according to the Pew Research Center.

Reza Jalali, executive director of Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center, likes the idea of the new program but has some concerns about how it will be administered and how much good it will do. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The Welcome Corps comes as the U.S. is far behind meeting Biden’s goal to admit 125,000 refugees during the federal fiscal year 2023, the Associated Press reported. By the end of December – three months into the fiscal year – only 6,750 refugees had been admitted to the country, according to State Department tallies.

The gap emphasizes the crying need for the new program, said Reza Jalali, executive director of the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center.

“As an immigrant advocate, I find it positive and forward-thinking,” Jalali said. “And I believe it will benefit the communities welcoming these immigrants as well as the refugees themselves.”


In Jalali’s experience, many people who oppose helping refugees have never met or interacted with them. They don’t understand the trauma many have experienced through war and persecution because of their religious, political and personal beliefs.

“This can help bridge those differences,” Jalali said.

Jalali believes the Welcome Corps may attract some of the many community groups and individuals in Maine who are already volunteering their time and resources to help refugees, including people who came here as immigrants themselves.

It also may help answer local demand for workers, he said, because refugees arrive with work permits. The Welcome Corps’ scope doesn’t include asylum seekers, who wait about a year for work permits after applying for asylum.

Despite the program’s positive intentions, Jalali has some concerns about how it will be administered and how much good it will do.

“The immigration system in our country is broken and we need comprehensive reform,” he said. “This can’t hide the fault lines in the system that need to be addressed.”


The State Department will roll out the Welcome Corps in two phases in the hope of making it a permanent feature of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, according to the department’s announcement.

In the first phase, private sponsors will be matched with refugees who have already been approved for resettlement. The State Department will begin facilitating those matches in the first six months of this year, the announcement stated.

In the second phase, to be launched midyear, private sponsors will be able to refer people to the Refugee Admissions Program and support them after they arrive.

The State Department is funding several nonprofits with expertise in refugee resettlement to oversee the vetting, certification and training of private sponsors. One of them is HIAS, an international affiliate of the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine, which resettled 102 refugees in 2022 from Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Syria and other countries.

“Ultimately, the scale of the need is so vast, we are always happy to see more people get involved in refugee resettlement work,” said Molly Curren Rowles, the Jewish Community Alliance’s executive director.

Catholic Charities Maine and Maine Immigrant & Refugee Services, two other nonprofit agencies that resettle refugees, didn’t respond to calls or emails requesting interviews about the new program.

Rowles noted that Canada has long used a similar community-based model to help resettle refugees. The U.S. launched a smaller program in October 2021 that has helped just over 800 Afghans and Ukrainians through a network of 230 certified sponsor circles that included about 5,000 people, the AP reported.

“Hopefully it will make more people aware and help them understand what it means to be a refugee and what it takes to build a whole new life in a whole new country,” Rowles said.

Related Headlines

Comments are no longer available on this story