U.S. halts resettlement of new refugees, prioritizes release of Afghan evacuees

By: - November 15, 2021 8:55 am

Demonstrators from the “Save Afghan Lives” protest chant as they march towards the U.S. Capitol shutting down Constitution Ave. on Aug. 28, 2021 in Washington, DC. Photo by Liz Lynch | Getty Images

The federal government is pausing its resettlement program for refugees around the world through early January 2022 to prioritize services for thousands of Afghan evacuees who are expected to exit military bases and arrive in cities across the country in the coming months, according to the U.S. Department of State.

The government  is prioritizing some groups of refugees for resettlement with “urgent cases, cases with processing steps that will expire, family reunification cases,” refugees who already have travel arrangements made for November and December, and those who have Special Immigrant Visa status, an agency spokesperson told Arizona Mirror in an email Friday. 

“This temporary approach will help expedite the resettlement of Afghans from safe havens to their new communities as part of Operation Allies Welcome between October 29, 2021, and January 11, 2022.”

Operation Allies Welcome is an effort coordinated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to resettle Afghan refugees who left the country during an emergency evacuation as American troops pulled out in August. 

The temporary pause in refugee resettlement is “unacceptable,” said Nejra Sumic, national field manager for We Are All America, an organization that advocates for refugees, asylum-seekers and immigrants.

“I think that the administration needs to do more to increase capacity for refugee resettlement agencies locally, we need to increase and build out the infrastructure and they need to continue to provide resources for them. We are not seeing that yet,” she said.  

FY21 saw historic low in refugee admissions

The temporary pause on new resettlement comes after the U.S. saw a historic low admission of refugees last fiscal year and in October.  Federal data shows 27 refugees were resettled in Arizona in October, a decrease from 132 in September. From October 2020 to September 2021, a total of 422 refugees were resettled in the state, a slight drop from 432 refugees in the previous fiscal year. Nationally, the U.S. admitted and processed 11,411 refugees in fiscal year 2021, way below the refugee cap of 62,500 that President Joe Biden set.

For fiscal year 2022, Biden has set the cap of admissions at 125,000, but current signs don’t bode well for the U.S. to hit that mark. 

Danilo Zak, policy and advocacy manager for the National Immigration Forum, said there’s many challenges, both domestic and international, that have weakened the U.S. refugee resettlement program.

Right now, the system is unable to handle sudden increases in resettlement, he said.

“Based on where the infrastructure is right now, it’s a real challenge to resettle the 50,000-70,000 Afghan evacuees,” Zak said. “But those numbers are only posing this big of a problem because there hasn’t been proactive efforts to build up capacity in the system and prepare for significant increases in refugee resettlement, whether that is domestically or internationally.” 

More federal agents need to interview refugees to have their cases adjudicated faster, there needs to be better coordination in the vetting process, and Congress needs to direct more funds to agencies that serve refugees, he said. 

“I commend the administration for evacuating Afghan allies and now working to resettle them,” he said. “In the past seven to eight months, despite the challenge of the Afghan evacuees and resettling those folks, there’s still some real concerns about the state of the refugee pipeline and the effort that the administration has taken to rebuild and regrow the system.”

The majority of Afghan refugees are not part of the formal resettlement process. Instead, they are being admitted into the U.S. through a temporary humanitarian parole program. 

But refugee resettlement agencies, their advocates and partners are still the ones who have largely responded and welcomed the Afghan refugees in recent months. This effort has posed challenges for the refugee resettlement program in the U.S., which saw its operations drastically downsize during the Trump administration and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Low admissions, pause on resettlement adds to criticism of Biden and immigration policy

The temporary pause in refugee admissions also adds to the criticisms that refugee and immigrant rights advocates have directed at Biden, who promised to welcome more refugees and implement more humane approaches to asylum seekers. Instead, the country has recorded a historic low in refugee admissions and the federal government kept Title 42 in place to expel thousands asylum-seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border. 

“We are almost a year into the presidency,” Sumic said. “From the beginning we have been trying to send that message that we need to rebuild the asylum process. The evacuation (in Afghanistan) was a complete failure. We are struggling to try to welcome these families into our communities because of the lack of infrastructure. We have asked the administration to rebuild, and if anything, we have gotten pushback with the cap and reaching that cap with admission numbers.”

At stake are not numbers or data, but lives, said Connie Phillips, president and CEO of Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest.

“Resettlement is really a matter of life and death. Resettlement, it’s humanitarian, it’s lifesaving,” she said. “And it’s available to such a small number of people to start with, and the fact that there’s been this delay, it’s really tragic. And it robs us as a country as well of a workforce, of innovation, of culture and art. There is no downside, none, to refugee resettlement. The United States benefits, and it creates more security in the world.”

As of last week, LSS had welcomed 41 people who were evacuated from Afghanistan, Phillips said. She added that the group expects to welcome about 500 Afghan evacuees through the end of the year. 

Phillips added that all of the organization’s staff has shifted to service the Afghan adults and families, since it doesn’t expect refugees from other countries to arrive. If there was no pause to the regular resettlement process, she said the agency’s capacity would be strained.

“We’ve been resettling so few … it would be difficult to have (Afghan evacuees) plus refugees from other countries,” she said. “Our infrastructure has been in sleep mode for the last five to six years now, and you’re having to get the system woke back up.” 

Refugee resettlement agencies are funded with federal dollars to provide case management services, housing, job search and English language instruction assistance to those seeking to make a new home in the U.S.

1,600 Afghan evacuees expected in Arizona by Jan. 2022

Some Afghan evacuees will arrive under the Special Immigrant Visa program, which is available to people who worked with or for the U.S. military as translators or interpreters, for U.S. government departments and agencies or its contractors, for U.S.-funded programs, or with U.S.-based NGOs or media organizations with operations in Afghanistan. Once they arrive in the U.S., Afghans granted SIVs can petition to enroll their spouse and children in the visa process. 

But the majority will arrive under a humanitarian parole, which is a temporary program, meaning they aren’t granted permanent residence in the U.S. Advocates such as Sumic want those arriving from Afghanistan to have a path to quickly adjust their immigration status to legal permanent residents, which would grant them permanence in the U.S. 

Right now in Arizona, Sumic said, more funding for housing Afghan families and refugees overall is critical. 

“Families are being placed in motels right now because we don’t have any funding or resources around housing,” Sumic said. “This administration has been very slow or has not taken any action at all to rebuttal some of the policies from the previous administration.”

Phillips, of LSS, estimates that about 40% of the staff at the resettlement agency was cut during the Trump years. The organization went from servicing 1,100 to 1,500 refugees per year to just a few hundred in recent years, she said. 

In Arizona, resettlement agencies are expected to welcome a total of 1,610 people recently evacuated from Afghanistan by the end of December, said Melanie Reyes, state community engagement coordinator with the International Rescue Committee, a resettlement agency with offices in Phoenix and Tucson. 

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Laura Gómez
Laura Gómez

Laura Gómez Rodriguez previously covered state politics and immigration for the Arizona Mirror.