The Afghanistan exit was bad — our refugee resettlement plan is no better

As a country, it feels like we are in a car with a new driver who is distracted and doesn’t know how to respond to the brake lights and swerving cars up ahead. We are weeks away from adding more chaos to the crisis we created as the result of our poorly planned exit from Afghanistan in July.

Right now, the federal government is careening forward with an ill-conceived plan to resettle our Afghan allies with well-intentioned but untrained and lightly supervised volunteers who do not know what they’re getting into.

And this is set to begin in a matter of weeks.

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We are nowhere close to fulfilling our obligation to evacuate those who supported U.S. forces over the last 20-years. Thousands remain trapped in Afghanistan as the Taliban hunt them down and destroy their homes because of their service to our country. These Afghans aren’t refugees. They risked their lives for us, and we owe them a debt of gratitude and have an obligation to them. 

So, let’s not replace one ill-considered plan with another and further traumatize already traumatized people.

As CEO of Seattle based Jewish Family Service (JFS), one of the many organizations working to resettle our Afghan allies, I was on a call recently with the Department of Homeland Security where I learned the government plans to move the roughly 70,000 Afghans currently on military bases into communities across the United States by early next year. They want to do this largely using volunteers. 

They’re calling it “private sponsorship” or “community sponsorship.” Private citizens who want to help can sponsor individuals or families; in other words, they can “become a welcomer,” as the website says. 

It’s absurd, however, for the Biden administration to think the answer is to invite well-meaning, but untrained, unvetted volunteers to take on the work of a resettlement agency. This marks a tectonic shift in the U.S. refugee resettlement strategy. It could be a great idea, but an idea without an implementation strategy is just a dream that could devolve into a nightmare.

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Unfortunately, this appears to have the same lack of forethought as the chaotic evacuation from the airport in Kabul this summer. Keep in mind, during the last year the U.S. resettled less than 15,000 people — an appallingly small number given the historic average for both Republican and Democratic administrations had been approximately 85,000 people per year

Now with degraded infrastructure, the government believes it can resettle 70,000 people in a few months using unsupervised volunteers? Let’s remember, it was the Trump administration that deliberately dismantled the entire resettlement system and gutted the State Department of its institutional memory and seasoned career officials.

It appears there are few meaningful systems to support this effort, which is modeled after the Canadian approach. Canada, however, has had four decades to refine its private sponsorship model.

There is a high likelihood this will lead to chaos as traumatized people will be resettled by people with a limited understanding of the many complexities of case management and resettlement. Even our teams who have done this work for years are describing the intensity of the trauma they are encountering as these families arrive with literally just the clothes on their backs.

Individuals and their families will show up on the doorsteps of the resettlement agencies looking for support, and the “welcomers” will quickly realize they are in over their heads as they try to navigate all the unique needs of these people and the weight of government requirements. Resettlement organizations are highly monitored. How will these volunteers be evaluated and supervised?

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Organizations like JFS will be left to play clean-up. In addition, everyone will be tripping over everyone else working through the government institutions until the infrastructure is implemented.

The desire of people to volunteer their time, money and homes to those in need is what makes America great. It lives up to the ideals embodied by the Statue of Liberty. But ideals aren’t a plan and plans take time to develop and implement. 

I suggest the federal government work closely with the state refugee resettlement coordinators. Talk to the people on the ground who are currently doing the work. Ask questions but don’t impose a plan. Let’s hire volunteer managers within the resettlement agencies to help coordinate the efforts to train, supervise and match volunteers with families.

The administration could also utilize AmeriCorps and enlist the multitude of other post-college volunteer organizations to help coordinate the effort and relieve the pressure on the resettlement agencies. Also, given the pandemic, maybe there are members of the Peace Corps who were recalled to the U.S. who would sign up for this assignment. Finally, let’s enlist the private sector, those companies that are masters of logistics to help scale up this effort. 

Rather than another haphazard approach, let’s leverage this moment to rekindle the spirit of service and purpose across our country. Let’s gradually ramp up over the next year as we create a well-built infrastructure to make this a long-term success. And let’s welcome our Afghan allies and their families into our communities with the respect they deserve and the seriousness of purpose they demonstrated toward us in Afghanistan.

Rabbi Will Berkovitz, who leads Jewish Family Service in Seattle, has been an outspoken national voice on refugee resettlement.Twitter: @JFSSeattle.