US efforts to relocate Afghan refugees face major hurdles
The Biden government’s plan to relocate tens of thousands of peoplefaces enormous operational and legal challenges, the issues of which range from the insecure immigration status of many evacuees to limited social resources and permanent housing for the newcomers.
Thousands of Afghans at risk arrive in the US without an approved visa, leaving them in legal limbo and unsuitable for some state welfare programs that have been accepted as refugees, including cash aid and Medicaid.
The sharp rise in admission of Afghan evacuees in recent days has also drained the resources of the nine U.S. national refugee relocation agencies, leading them to house some refugees in hotels and Airbnb rentals while affordable housing is found, three resettlement officials told CBS News.
Since mid-August, the US has taken in around 24,000 of the Afghans they evacuated from Kabul this summer before the US withdrew. According to internal federal data verified by CBS News, as of Thursday morning, more than 20,000 of them were housed at eight military locations selected as temporary housing.
Another 39,000 or so evacuees remained at military bases in Europe and the Middle East, including Afghans who were undergoing US immigration processing and security clearance, the federal data showed.
The massive resettlement operation on a scale not seen since the US evacuated tens of thousands of refugees from Vietnam in 1975 is testing the government’s resettlement system, which is not prepared for a sudden influx of evacuees. It has also prompted the relocation agencies to make a Herculean effort to recruit volunteers and solicit donations.
“This is a very traumatized population, coming out of a crazy, chaotic evacuation system and being taken to a place where they are basically on their own unless the agencies are able to mobilize the private support to make it work. ” Erol Kekic, senior vice president at Church World Service, a major relocation organization, told CBS News.
Some Afghans who have supported the US war effort as translators and other roles arrive with special immigrant visas (SIV) that allow them to become green card holders or permanent residents upon arrival in the US. Immigration petitions are missing what Induced US officials to authorize their entry through a humanitarian instrument known as probation.
The probation permit allows beneficiaries to temporarily stay and work in the US, but does not provide a direct route to permanent residence or access to certain federal programs designed to help newcomers integrate into American society, including additional safety income, food stamps , Employment assistance and medical services.
To counter these exclusions, the State Department is launching an Afghan Parolee Support Program that will provide Afghan probation officers with shelter, transportation, food, cash, clothing, legal advice and other services, according to several resettlement officials involved in the effort.
The resettlement agencies are expected to receive $ 2,275 for each Afghan probation officer they serve. However, probation officers only have access to the makeshift program for up to 90 days, so refugee lawyers are now calling on the legislature to enact a legal solution.
Congressmen Seth Moulton and Don Bacon, a non-partisan couple of former military officials, plan to propose a bill known as the WELCOME Act on Friday that would give Afghan probation officers the same state benefits as traditional refugees, two congressional officials told CBS News.
The Department of Health and Human Services ‘Office of Refugee Resettlement is also planning to create an ad hoc program to temporarily cover probation officers’ medical care, two resettlement officials said.
Probation officers who don’t qualify for the special immigrant visas also need attorneys to secure other forms of permanent status like asylum or family-based green cards, these officials said.
Those who have been persecuted in Afghanistan, or fear persecution if they are returned there, could potentially reach the legal threshold for asylum, but their cases could take up to years, given a backlog of 403,000 pending applications to U.S. citizenship and immigration services they are decided.
It is unclear what will happen to Afghans whose applications are denied. Although they would technically be subject to deportation, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Service (ICE) has not operated a deportation flight to Afghanistan since late 2020, an agency official told CBS News.
“Our asylum process doesn’t exactly have the capacity to handle tens of thousands of new asylum applications,” said Matthew Soerens, head of church mobilization at World Relief, one of the national resettlement organizations. “And what do you do with someone who has been paroled from Afghanistan and is unable to compile the evidence of entitlement to asylum? Will that person be sent back to the Taliban?”
To avoid this scenario and bypass the congested asylum pipeline, proponents are calling on Congress to set up a special legalization program for Afghan evacuees. Such a program, proponents said, could be similar to the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, which allows immigrants from Cuba who have been legally admitted to apply for green cards after a year in the United States.
A Biden administration official told CBS News that there are “ongoing” talks about long-term plans to ensure that Afghan evacuees have “status in the United States that allows continued employment, presence (and) continued integration into the United States.” would facilitate their new American communities ”. “, Including an appeal.
Most of the Afghans who have been relocated to the United States will be taken to eight military facilities where they will undergo COVID-19 tests, vaccinations, medical exams, and additional immigration procedures, including applications for work permits.
Afghan evacuees must receive vaccines against measles, mumps, rubella, polio and the coronavirus within seven days of their probation, according to a Homeland Security document received by CBS News. They also have to have a tuberculosis test.
Failure to meet requirements, including notifying US authorities of a change of address and providing the requested information, could result in Afghans being suspended and, according to the document, “detained and deported.”
After processing at the military sites, Afghan evacuees are connected to the resettlement agencies, which are supposed to help them find affordable housing and jobs. The agencies usually help the refugees cover rent for up to three months while they settle down.
Resettlement officials said they had encountered “tremendous” difficulties in finding permanent residence for evacuated Afghans.
Coupled with the increasing pace of refugee reception, the limited housing options have led resettlement agencies to work with hotel chains to secure short-term accommodation.
“If you have around 80 people a day, your chances of getting that many people into apartments are probably not very good,” said Kekic, vice president of Church World Service.
Soerens, the World Relief official, said his group had also used hotels to house some of the more than 360 Afghan special immigrant visa holders they received in August, including those with large families.
“We are used to being informed of the arrival of refugees a few weeks in advance and then putting together a team of volunteers who can set up the apartments. At the moment we sometimes get a couple of hours in advance, ”added Soerens.