Afghan refugee arrivals will test US resettlement system

Administration says number of Afghans departing is ‘fluid'

Afghan refugees arrive at Dulles International Airport on Friday after leaving Afghanistan as it fell to the Taliban. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Afghan refugees arrive at Dulles International Airport on Friday after leaving Afghanistan as it fell to the Taliban. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted August 27, 2021 at 10:33am

The U.S. is gearing up to resettle thousands of Afghan special immigrant visa holders and other refugees across the country, and the wave of arrivals will test an American resettlement system largely dismantled under the Trump administration. 

The number of Afghan refugees evacuated so far is uncertain. Senior administration officials said Tuesday that numbers are “fluid,” but more than 100,000 people total, including Afghans, U.S. citizens and permanent residents, have been flown out of the country since late July.

The American refugee resettlement system has slowly begun to rebuild under President Joe Biden. According to data through the end of July, just 6,246 refugees have been resettled so far in fiscal 2021, falling far short of Biden’s proposed ceiling of 62,500. 

“It has been a herculean effort that's been underway for months to rebuild the system quickly, knowing the dire need right now,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a major resettlement group. 

Where Afghan refugees end up, after their long journey through military bases in Asia, Europe and the U.S., depends on a wide variety of factors. Some may have family already in the U.S. who they plan to join, others may have medical needs that demand proximity to a hospital. 

Many will travel to cities and towns across the country and end up in existing Afghan communities, like the one in Maryland's Prince George’s County. Local refugee groups there, which have years of experience helping Afghans, are preparing for significant numbers to arrive. 

“Families are here, but we don't really have access to them yet,” said Merritt Groeschel, executive director at Solutions in Hometown Communities, a refugee aid group in Maryland. “But once that happens, we're going to work with our resettlement agency partners to sort of take a little bit of the burden off of them, and help them with some of the case management.”

Afghans with special immigrant visas, approved for those who risked their lives to help American troops in Afghanistan, and other refugees will be eligible for government-funded programs that provide cash, medical assistance, job placement services and English language classes to help with their transition.

A dismantled system

Resettling refugees depends on an international pipeline and a complicated domestic infrastructure involving both government agencies and nonprofit resettlement groups. Nearly everyone slashed their staff and resources when the U.S. resettled only a few thousand refugees every year under President Donald Trump. 

Afghan refugees arrive at Dulles International Airport on Friday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

It takes time to rebuild relationships with all the entities in local communities that played a role in resettlement: landlords who rented apartments to refugees, employers who hired them, volunteer networks that provided them transportation for medical appointments.

"We are already working closely with refugee organizations to rebuild the system that was purposely destroyed by my predecessor,” Biden said during remarks on Tuesday.

Earlier this year, refugee groups warned that a dismantled system could struggle to accommodate fluctuations in arrival numbers because funding for resettlement groups is tied to the number of people resettled.

“I think that, had the Biden administration made good on its promises to rebuild the resettlement program with more immediacy, there would be more staff capacity, potentially, more site capacity,” said Meredith Owen, director of policy and advocacy at Church World Service, another major resettlement agency.

Stephen Carattini, president of the Catholic Charities Diocese of Arlington, which helps resettle refugees in Arlington, Va., said his group was fortunate to maintain staff during the slowest years of the Trump administration, putting them in a much better position to help now. 

“The good news is that we didn't go to zero,” he said. “So we were able to maintain most of our core staff, unlike many other resettlement agencies across the country who in fact had to close.”

Unique refugee needs

Although all refugees come to the U.S. to flee a dangerous situation in their home countries, special resources could be needed for thousands of Afghans who left the country in the wake of the Taliban takeover, often after a harrowing journey to the Kabul airport and with few or no personal belongings. 

For most refugees, that trauma will be compounded by anxiety for family members who remain in Afghanistan. 

The U.S. has vowed to withdraw all troops from the country by Aug. 31, likely leaving thousands of Afghans behind. 

“People coming here will not only have the stress of the experience they endured in Afghanistan to go through, but their concerns about their remaining family who were not transported,” said Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, president of the Islamic-American Zakat Foundation, a Maryland-based charity group that helps needy Muslims, including Afghan refugees. 

But refugee advocacy groups point to a groundswell of support among American citizens for helping Afghan refugees, a sentiment supported by governors and federal lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. 

Airbnb has already offered to house 20,000 refugees worldwide for free, and Walmart Inc. has promised $1 million to groups that help refugees. Local refugee groups said volunteer and donor interest in recent days has been higher than ever. 

“We're steadfast in saying that we have the infrastructure that will welcome these folks because it is the right thing to do, and it's the moral thing to do,” Owen said.