Massive effort to welcome Afghans will soon see 1,700 refugees arrive in Washington, 400 in Idaho

Orion Donovan-Smith / The Revue Spokesperson

WASHINGTON – Nearly 1,700 Afghans who fled the Taliban takeover of their country in the last days of America’s longest war will begin arriving in Washington state as early as this week, with more than 400 others headed to Idaho, as part of a major refugee resettlement effort.

Refugee agencies are preparing to help an initial group of nearly 37,000 people move into new homes in 46 states, according to data provided by the White House. Only California, Texas and Oklahoma are expected to host more Afghan refugees than Washington.

“This mission truly reflects the best of who we are as a country,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said on Friday during a call with reporters, describing a “robust screening and screening process and multilayer “taking place at military bases across the United States. and abroad before refugees arrive in their new communities.

No less than 300 Afghans are expected to arrive in Spokane. Mark Finney, director of World Relief’s Spokane office, said welcoming them will require an effort from the local community.

“It’s going to require major collaboration between all kinds of nonprofits and faith communities, as well as individuals and employers of goodwill,” Finney said. “It’s a huge lift, especially during a pandemic and a housing crisis, but it’s the right thing to do and we know our community is with us.”

World Relief, which is affiliated with the National Association of Evangelicals, is one of nine faith-based and community-based organizations that work with the federal government to help refugees settle in their new communities. Its Spokane office hosted more than 600 refugees in 2016, but that number fell to around 150 per year in 2019 and 2020 after the Trump administration reduced refugee admissions to historically low levels, forcing resettlement agencies to downsize.

The Biden administration has restored the refugee admission limit to pre-Trump levels, but Finney said after resettling only about 100 people in the past year, receiving 300 Afghans in the coming months will require help from all corners, including Congress.

The White House has asked lawmakers for $ 6.4 billion to support the massive relocation operation, but that funding is caught in a dispute between Democrats and Republicans over legislation to avoid a government shutdown and default federal debt payment.

President Joe Biden announced the effort, dubbed Operation Allies Welcome, in the closing hours of the airlift that evacuated more than 122,000 people from Kabul between August 14 and August 30.

Senior refugee officials in Washington and Idaho say they expect the first refugees to arrive in their states soon, after completing health and safety checks at military bases.

The number of Afghans referred to each state in the first wave of resettlement is based on capacity determined by local resettlement agencies and state refugee coordinators, according to the White House.

Most of the 1,679 people coming to Washington will settle with the help of five agencies in the Puget Sound area, Washington State Refugee Coordinator Sarah Peterson said Friday, 300 of whom resettled via World Relief Spokane, 40 via World Relief Tri-Cities and 49 via the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services Office in Vancouver.

In Idaho, 320 people are heading to the Boise area with help from the International Rescue Committee and the Agency for New Americans, and another 100 are destined for Twin Falls through the College of Southern Idaho Refugee Center , according to Tara Wolfson, director of the Idaho Office for Refugees.

The roughly 37,000 refugees state agencies have agreed to accept are just a “first wave,” and Peterson said that number could nearly double by the end of the year.

While some of those arriving from Afghanistan have applied for Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) for Afghans who have worked for the U.S. military and others may qualify for the standard refugee program, the evacuation hasty and chaotic forced the government to bring most of the evacuees to the United States through a separate process called humanitarian parole.

With this status, newcomers will have two years to apply for permanent legal status, but the refugee and SIV programs have specific criteria for which not all will be eligible.

A separate option, the asylum process, is already plagued by delays of several years and is said to be even more overwhelmed by an influx of new applicants from Afghanistan.

Of the more than 60,000 Afghan nationals who have arrived in the United States, Mayorkas told a Senate panel Tuesday, about 13% are US citizens or permanent residents and only 3% have received SIVs. While some of the remaining 84% might qualify for SIVs or the standard refugee resettlement program, many would likely run out of time and join the more than 10 million immigrants living in the country without legal status.

Seeking another option, the White House asked Congress to create a special process similar to the standard refugee program that would allow Afghans to apply for permanent resident status – also known as a “green card” – after one year from states. -United. Legislation requested by the administration would also make Afghans on humanitarian parole eligible for Medicaid and other social services provided through SIV and refugee programs.

Finney said that while this congressional help is essential, making the daunting resettlement effort a reality will also require help from local communities. One of the biggest challenges for newly arrived refugees is finding affordable housing. Finney said residents have already approached World Relief Spokane to offer below market house rentals.

Vacation rental company Airbnb has also offered to provide temporary accommodation for up to 40,000 Afghan refugees. Finney said World Relief Spokane will have access to Airbnb credit, although he warned that credit may not last long in Spokane’s housing market.

In addition to cash donations, Finney said World Relief Spokane accepts donations of cooking utensils, dishes and cleaning supplies. Locals can volunteer and find other ways to help on the World Relief Spokane website.

During the call with Mayorkas on Friday, Operation Allies Welcome coordinator Jack Markell said the effort will require “a Pan-American approach to safely and effectively welcome our Afghan allies.”

“The response from across the country has been overwhelming,” said Markell, former Democratic governor of Delaware.

“We have seen that Americans are proud of so many Afghans who have supported us over the past 20 years in Afghanistan, and believe they deserve our support in return.”

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