Afghan arrivals pose new challenges for resettlement agencies

Afghan arrivals pose new challenges for resettlement agencies
© Greg Nash

Thousands of evacuated Afghans who worked with American troops have landed in the United States with their families, often with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.

Their arrival poses challenges for resettlement, including uncertainty surrounding the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) process, a short supply of affordable permanent housing, and high demand for social services.

There are nine nonprofit organizations contracted by the State Department that place refugees with local affiliates, who in turn help with food, medical care, housing, and other basic needs.

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Church World Service (CWS), one of the nine national agencies, said the difference is like “night and day” from helping to resettle the new Afghan refugees compared with others.

“Normally, we would have up to a couple of weeks notice before people would arrive, which gives our local colleagues an opportunity to find housing, to equip the housing, to mobilize the local community to support the new arrivals, and to put everything in order,” Erol Kekic, senior vice president of the Immigration and Refugee Program at CWS, said in an interview.

Given the rushed emergency evacuation in Afghanistan, Kekic said CWS has experienced some instances where they weren’t notified about certain evacuees until they had already arrived at a U.S. airport.

CWS has seen the majority of refugees resettle in Northern California — particularly the Sacramento area — Northern Virginia around Washington, D.C., and the Dallas metro area. The organization’s assistance program typically lasts between 30 and 90 days, according to Kekic.

Another of the nine agencies, Episcopal Migration Ministries, said it has assisted 769 refugees this fiscal year, with California, Connecticut and Texas receiving the most, according to Operations Director Demetrio Alvero.

Other resettlement agencies told The Hill that complete data on which states are drawing more arrivals is not available yet, although some governors have expressed more willingness to accept refugees from Afghanistan.

A complicating factor is that refugees are coming into the country with varying legal statuses.

Some are eligible for the special immigrant visa (SIV) program, available to interpreters who worked with the U.S. Armed Forces for at least a year or Afghan nationals who worked with a branch of the U.S. military, an American intelligence agency or a military contractor for at least two years.

At the beginning of August, the State Department created a Priority-2 designation, expanding access to the refugee program to Afghans who assisted U.S. contractors, media, or government programs but did not qualify for an SIV.

Still, “for those that do make it to the U.S., most will not have any permanent legal status. They face years navigating the Byzantine, bureaucratic, and backlogged immigration system,” said Sunil Varghese, the International Refugee Assistance Program’s (IRAP) policy director.

A 2013 amendment to the Afghan Allies Protection Act requires the State Department to complete its review of an SIV application within nine months. According to the IRAP, government-provided data indicates there are at least 14,000 Iraqis and Afghans with SIV applications who have stalled beyond that requirement, and suggests “the average Afghan and Iraqi SIV applicant is likely to wait for more than four years for a visa.”

“My feeling is that some of the people who are applying for SIVs are in process of those applications and will just continue that process, but that there are also a number of people who've been evacuated who are starting their SIV application once they get here,” said Katrina Powell, director of Virginia Tech’s Center for Refugee, Migrant and Displacement Studies.

“The likelihood for them to receive an SIV would probably be at least a couple of years,” she estimated.

Those individuals without visas, including applicants waiting for their SIV or designation to be processed, can request humanitarian parole. Parole is granted on a case-by-case basis due to urgent humanitarian or significant public benefit reasons. At the end of the parole period, evacuees must leave the country if they have not successfully applied for a visa or otherwise legalized their immigration status.

Under the status of parole, they do not have access to the same resettlement services as SIV applicants, ranging from cash and medical assistance to health insurance to help with housing.

“That complicates things quite a bit,” Kekic said. “You have no support outside of the one-time per capita payments that the State Department provides the resettlement agencies to care for people. That is about $400 per person. As you can imagine, that doesn't go very far.”

Alvero said Episcopal Migration Ministries’ resettlement network was “not designed for parolees,” but the organization is in the process of gathering private resources, like volunteers and donations, to meet their needs.

“Parolees for the most part will rely on private support. The major areas of need for parolees will be housing, medical health including mental health, and legal assistance,” he said.

The U.S. is working with third countries like Qatar as so-called lily pad sites for additional security vetting before Afghans board flights to processing facilities in the U.S. and elsewhere. But the approach has left thousands in limbo.

Both CWS and the International Rescue Committee (IRC), another federal resettlement partner, said they have staff employed at the military facilities where refugees stay during processing, which includes health screenings, COVID-19 testing and other vaccinations.

Additionally, there is a great deal of problem-solving that happens there. In the cases where somebody is missing a paper document, for instance, the agencies that make decisions on visas all have someone in the room to help find an alternative way to gather the necessary information, said JC Hendrickson, the IRC’s senior director for resettlement and asylum policy.

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Getting involved that early is new for the IRC, which normally comes in after people have finished their U.S. government process.

“We’re working with the U.S. government at government facilities to help people kind of finish their processing into the United States and then helping them get set up with services with resettlement agencies,” Hendrickson said.

“The process, as we're experiencing right now, isn't like anything that the US government has done in at least the last 20 years,” he added.

The difference is the sheer numbers of arrivals.

“There was an expectation that there might be around two or three thousand refugees in the state of Virginia, but that number has continued to rise in the last week or two. And so I think there's some scrambling to try to figure out how to accommodate that many people,” said Powell of Virginia Tech.

Of the more than 65,000 Afghans the U.S. evacuated, 23,876 refugees considered “at risk” have already arrived in the United States, State Department spokesman Ned Price said Wednesday.

Resettlement agencies help with meeting both refugees’ immediate and long-term needs. Hendrickson said the IRC provides that assistance for several months, and at the six-month mark, refugees become eligible for social services, like SNAP benefits and Medicaid. Further down the line, local agency affiliates connect refugees with job training services and enroll their children in school.

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“Longer term programs aimed at self-sufficiency will take up to 6-7 months after initial arrival. Some clients can benefit from a program (up to 5 years) for specific needs, such as mental health issues that may not manifest themselves in the first months after arrival,” Alvero said in an email.

Powell also highlighted mental health services as especially important for successful resettlement.

“Because of the evacuation process and the war in Afghanistan, I think some people will be arriving with significant trauma,'' she said. “The health services that are being provided include medical attention for anything they need but also I think mental health services for anyone who needs it.”