Taking action on World Refugee Day

June 17th, 2023

June 20th is World Refugee Day, a day organized by the United Nations to honor refugees while encouraging action on behalf of the 89.3 million forcibly displaced persons around the world.[1] Moved by the Old Testament’s contextually unique emphasis on care for the widow, orphan, and migrant (e. g., Exod. 22:23; Lev. 19:33–34; Jer. 22:3–4),[2] and aware that care for the stranger is care for Christ (Matt. 25:31–46), many local congregations and their clergy undoubtedly are interested in seeking a concrete way to stand in solidarity with refugees. The complexity of immigration law can make it challenging to identify helpful actions. Fortunately, the Biden administration’s recent privatization of much resettlement has opened unique opportunities for churches to help displaced persons around the world. 

One of the flagship programs of the Biden administration’s refugee policy has been the Uniting for Ukraine program. A troubling feature of international refugee law is that the 1951 UN Refugee Convention only applies to those who are being persecuted for reasons like their religion, political opinion, or ethnicity. In other words, those fleeing race-based violence, political oppression, or violations of religious freedom have avenues to seek asylum in other countries, though such programs are often plagued by years-long and even decade-long wait periods for approval. Those fleeing wars, like many Ukrainians after the Russian invasion, are not eligible for typical resettlement programs and so often cannot legally resettle or pursue employment in a new country after fleeing war. The Uniting for Ukraine program has provided an avenue for Ukrainians who are ineligible for traditional refugee resettlement to be resettled in the United States with full eligibility to work. The catch is that these Ukrainians must be sponsored by private individuals in order to be resettled. Following the success of the Uniting for Ukraine program, the Biden administration launched a similar program for Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans (the “CHNV program”).

Available from Cokesbury

Churches are not allowed to directly sponsor beneficiaries of the Uniting for Ukraine program or the CHNV program, but they can play a vital role. First, in raising awareness of programs, clergy can encourage parishioners to become direct sponsors, or clergy can serve as direct sponsors themselves. The privatized programs do not have direct matching mechanisms. Some organizations have put together ways of finding refugees to sponsor,[3] but churches may have missionary connections that would also serve them in finding those needing sponsorship. Private sponsors must fill out form I-134A, which must prove (among other things) a financial ability to care for refugees once they arrive. Here, churches can pledge financial support to refugees, submitting such pledges as supporting documentation to the I-134A, increasing chances of approval and reducing the liability of the private sponsor. As refugees arrive, considerable volunteers are needed to prepare lodging, help fill out forms, provide transportation, look for jobs, and probably to help with English proficiency. Here, churches can establish volunteer teams to support the refugees. Churches in my community have established five teams: a hospitality team to welcome families, a finance/employment team to supervise donations and help welcomed families find jobs, an ESL team providing conversation partners and ESL courses, a lodging team to find an apartment and furnish it, and a forms/education team to help with paperwork and school enrollment for children.  (Including information about these teams further increases the likelihood of approval for the I-134A).  


Some churches may find such private sponsorship daunting and may prefer a less substantial means of support. The United States refugee resettlement infrastructure was greatly weakened during the Trump administration, which reduced resettlement rates by roughly 80%. Refugee resettlement agencies are still building back to capacity as a result. For this reason, many agencies are developing partnerships and sponsorships with private groups, including churches, to help with refugee resettlement. In my area, the International Rescue Committee is seeking sponsorship groups that will include more extensive support from specialists at the IRC, reducing the burden for the church community. Organizations in your congregation’s area would likely have similar needs. Alternatively, some churches may enjoy the opportunity for private sponsorship, but may have existing connections with other refugee communities. Such churches may benefit from considering the Welcome Corps, the Biden administration’s new private opportunity for supporting traditional refugees fleeing persecution around the world. These opportunities and others in an administration increasingly focused on privatized refugee resettlement provide excellent opportunities for churches and clergy this World Refugee Day.

[1] This estimate is based on the most recent data from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and includes several legal categories of displaced persons, not just those fitting the technical definition of refugees.

[2] As Christiana Van Houten notes, the Old Testament legal codes share common concern with other Ancient Near Eastern cultures regarding orphans and widows but are unique in their regular concern for provision for migrants. See Christiana Van Houten, The Alien in Israelite Law (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1991), 34.

[3] To my knowledge, the best matching mechanism is found at https://welcome.us/become-a-sponsor

comments powered by Disqus