By Jennifer Chowdhury
On Sept. 1, Hamed Ahmadi tweeted a picture of a few slices of stale chicken breast and melon in a styrofoam container with the caption, “Not complaining but this is what I got last night for dinner and the next meal is 12 hours later. Refugee life might be safe but never easy & favorable.”
Twenty-eight-year-old Ahmadi had worked on the ground in Afghanistan for several years. When the U.S. officially pulled out of Afghanistan on Aug. 31 after 20 years of occupation, Ahmadi’s work became a life-threatening liability, marking him as a potential Taliban target. He and others like him would have to leave their homes and take refuge in a foreign country.
“An American NGO coordinated [the evacuation] well, and 13 of us were able to get through the Taliban checkpoint and the airport gate safely,” Ahmadi described.
Currently, Ahmadi is one of more than 650 Afghan refugees waiting in Ft. Bliss in El Paso, Texas, for further visa and resettlement instructions. A Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) is available to Afghans who worked with the U.S. military or under the Chief of Mission authority as a translator or interpreter, but not all Afghans who could evacuate and get to the U.S. will qualify. Afghans who don’t qualify for an SIV, like Ahmadi, could apply for a Priority 2 designation for The United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). A “P2” designation applies to those “groups of special concern designated by the Department of State as having access to the program by virtue of their circumstances and apparent need for resettlement.”
On Aug. 23, the Biden administration announced it would use humanitarian parole authority to process evacuated Afghans as humanitarian parolees. Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, parole is granted for “urgent humanitarian reasons” or because an individual’s entrance is determined to be a “significant public benefit” to the U.S. The parole process significantly cuts through administrative red tape and can be processed in days or sometimes just a few hours compared to the visa process, which can take years. But with an estimated half a million Afghans fleeing their country by the end of the year, the question remains: How will resettlement agencies afford to provide shelter and provisions for so many refugees at the same time?
Resettlement efforts need more funding
Once refugees are thoroughly vetted by USRAP and admitted to the country, they are picked up at the airport by a representative of one of nine domestic resettlement agencies. All of them have cooperative agreements with the U.S. Department of State. The agencies arrange for their housing, which includes basic furnishings, appliances, clothing, and food.
“When refugees are resettled to the U.S., the agencies that receive and settle them never have enough funding to provide refugees with all the services and help they need to be successfully integrated into the U.S.,” said Devon Cone, senior advocate at Refugees International.
The State Department’s Reception and Placement (R&P) program provides refugees with a loan to travel to the U.S., which they are required to start repaying after they arrive. The R&P program supplies resettlement agencies a one-time sum per refugee to finance and provide for basic needs during their first 30-90 days in the U.S. Currently, the federal government provides $2,275 for each Afghan humanitarian parolee resettlement agencies serve, $1,225 in direct assistance to Afghans, and $1,050 for administrative costs of resettlement services. Donations usually make up the rest of the funding needed. After three months, the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) works through the states and other nongovernmental organizations to provide refugees with limited cash and medical assistance, as well as short-term language, employment, and social services, and longer-term integration services.
“The reality of the current situation is that we need as much funding as we can get,” Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. “We have been blessed to receive support from individuals, congregations, and certain corporations, but we still have a long way to go to fill in funding gaps.”
In July, President Joe Biden approved $500 million from the United States Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance Fund (MRAA) to meet unexpected and urgent needs of people at risk as a result of the situation in Afghanistan. The MRAA fund was established by the Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1962 in response to the influx of Cuban immigrants.
Nothing but the clothes on their backs
Refugees face steep barriers to economic integration on arriving in the U.S. Contrary to what many nativists argue, refugee advocates plead that the financial support they receive from the government often isn’t enough. Vignarajah pointed out that many refugees, both individuals and families, often arrive with literally nothing more than the clothes on their backs but still face quickly mounting costs of rent, household expenses, and food while having access to very limited resources.
“Many simply do not have a nest egg to build from,” said Vignarajah. “It can also be difficult to find housing when you may not have a credit history or social security number. We’ve had instances where we have provided six months of rent in advance to reassure landlords.”
The 1980 Refugee Act allows for up to three years of funding to support the refugees once they arrive in the United States. But reception and placement funding only last between one and three months, which is not enough to make substantive strides in becoming economically independent. The National Bureau of Economic Research calculates that, on average, the U.S. spends $15,148 in relocation costs and $92,217 in social benefits over an adult refugee’s first 20 years in the country.
“For comparison, what we spend on nuclear weapons is about the same as what we would spend on refugees,” explains Lindsay Koshgarian, program director at The National Priorities Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan federal budget research organization that tracks federal military spending. “Less than $100 a year for the average taxpayer to resettle a million refugees. It’s important to understand it’s not $100 or nothing. Most people would probably be paying less than that.”
Through her research, Koshgarian found that the Pentagon’s 2020 budget for the war in Afghanistan could pay for the resettlement of a significant chunk of the 3.5 million Afghans who were internally displaced as of July. In 2020, the Pentagon budget for operations in Afghanistan was $18.6 billion, a level of investment that could pay up-front for the costs of relocating 1.2 million refugees.
“That’s more than the 250,000 Afghans displaced since the end of May (and growing), and it’s a significant chunk,” Kosharian pointed out in her blog.
Access to public benefits is essential
In addition to funding, advocates are fighting for newly arrived Afghan refugees to receive the same public benefits received by other refugees. While processing Afghan refugees as humanitarian parolees may be faster, it doesn’t automatically confer immigration status or public benefits—in general, parolees must apply for a more permanent immigration status to remain in the U.S. for longer than a short period. Under the Operation Allies Refugee parole program, Afghans are granted protection from deportation for two years and are eligible to apply for work authorization, but parolees are generally not eligible for Medicaid, Refugee Cash Assistance, food stamps and other government assistance.
“Each of our Afghan ‘humanitarian parolees’ are currently ineligible for public benefits and services, which could help support them past the initial 90-day window,” Vignarajah explained.
Vignarajah is advocating for the passage of the WELCOMED Act proposed by Reps. Seth Moulton (D-MA) and Don Bacon (R-NE). The bill would ensure all Afghans arriving under “humanitarian parole” have access to the same level of benefits other refugees have traditionally received.
“The current ‘parolee’ system, while a necessary stopgap, is nonetheless insufficient to address the continuing needs of individuals and families who have been forced to leave everything behind,” Vignarajah said in a statement in support of the bill.
Refugee advocates are also working towards a more robust resettlement structure that could immediately benefit Afghan parolees.
“We know we can’t be in this for the short haul. Starting over from scratch isn’t something that happens in a matter of weeks. If the U.S. is committed to positioning these refugees to thrive in their new communities, we have to embrace longer-term solutions as well,” Vignarajah said.
Research shows that investing in refugees pays off for the American economy. The National Bureau of Economic Research found that refugees who entered the US as adults from 2010-14 paid, on average, $21,000 more in taxes than they got in any welfare payments. The average adult refugee pays $128,689 in taxes—$21,324 more than benefits they may have received.
Ramya Vijaya, professor of economics at Stockton University, used U.S. census data to compare refugees resettled in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with the local population. Her research showed that the median household income estimates for refugees resettled in the area for seven or more years was $46,126, higher than the median income estimate of $38,253 for the local population.
But economists and refugee advocates alike stress the same point—the U.S. has a moral obligation to help Afghans. Historically, if the political will exists, refugee resettlement is highly successful in the U.S. In the 70s, the U.S. took measures to mitigate the consequences of its failures in Vietnam, passing immediate legislation to deal with urgent asylum cases, subsequently admitting more than 1.3 million refugees from Southeast Asia. The same, advocates argue, can be done for Afghan refugees.
“At the end of the day, it’s a human rights issue, not an economics issue,” Ramya said.
Jennifer Chowdhury is a journalist and writer dedicated to human rights reporting with a special focus on women of color around the world whose voices are stifled by patriarchy, systematic racism, and socioeconomic burdens. She spent two years reporting on the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh and a lifetime of witnessing immigrant communities in New York City. Her work has been featured in The Washington Post, NPR, The Guardian, The New York Times, Elle magazine, and more.
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