Afghans Steered to States with ‘Help Wanted’ Signs, Pro-Immigrant Bent

By: - October 7, 2021 12:00 am

A family who fled Afghanistan in August poses in front of their new home in Seattle. Agencies have been struggling to find private funding as evacuees from the chaotic end of the war arrive without the refugee status that would entitle them to government benefits. Ted S. Warren/The Associated Press

While a handful of state leaders have raised objections, most states are welcoming families fleeing Afghanistan. Those attitudes are influencing where the U.S. government, working with local nonprofits, resettles the 95,000 Afghan evacuees expected this year and next.

California, New York, Oregon and Utah, along with some local governments, have used their own money to help refugees, viewing them as a boon to businesses struggling to find entry-level employees.

Hawaii, South Dakota, West Virginia and Wyoming aren’t slated to receive any Afghans. The Republican governors of South Dakota and Wyoming have expressed resistance to resettling them.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, for example, expressed doubt about accepting Afghans, saying she doesn’t trust the Biden administration to thoroughly vet new residents. In Wyoming, the only state without a resettlement program for refugees from any country, Gov. Mark Gordon said in August he had “no interest” in accepting Afghan families.

And 16 GOP senators signed a letter Oct. 4 calling for a “pause” in relocating Afghans until they apply for visas and undergo more vetting. In September, Idaho Gov. Brad Little, a Republican, wrote a letter to President Joe Biden to ask for stringent vetting and to say he directed state police to help vet newcomers. In that letter, Little said “our hearts go out to all Americans and Afghan allies who have sacrificed” during the war.

State governments have no direct say in whether refugees will be resettled in their states, though nonprofits, working with federal officials, do consider a welcoming atmosphere when choosing destinations.

Both Republican and Democratic governors generally have been supportive of resettling Afghans who helped the U.S. government or businesses during the war. And communities that are losing population and lack entry-level workers see refugees as a partial solution.

In Texas, employers including steel mills and a chocolate factory are calling nonprofit Refugee Services of Texas every week asking to hire Afghan evacuees, said CEO Russell Smith. “They will definitely be an economic boon.”

In South Dakota, however, resistance to hosting refugees grew during the Trump administration, when refugee admissions dropped to the lowest level ever. Local charities in the state have become less willing to provide services for refugees, said Rebecca Kiesow-Knudsen, CEO of Lutheran Social Services of South Dakota.

“Our local funding relationships have dried up over the last four years,” said Kiesow-Knudsen. Her agency has not agreed to settle more Afghan refugees because “we don’t want to commit unless we’re sure we can support them long term.”

As of Aug. 31, the federal government, working with local nonprofits, had placed about 8,000 Afghan refugees and visa holders over the past year. Another 58,000 people who were evacuated in the final days of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan are staying on American military bases, waiting for resettlement. The federal government expects a total of 65,000 Afghans to settle in the United States this year and another 30,000 next year.

Most of those waiting have no official status as refugees. Instead, after background checks to show they played a role in helping the United States in the war or had risky jobs such as working as journalists or human rights activists, they will obtain “humanitarian parole” status. That means they likely will have to wait for an asylum hearing in immigration courts already facing years of backlogs.

The White House notified states in mid-September to expect at least 37,000 arrivals in an initial placement, with the largest number going to California (5,255) and Texas (4,481).

The largest per capita planned arrivals are in Oklahoma (1,800 new residents, or 45 per 100,000 population) and Nebraska (775, or 40 per 100,000 population), according to a Stateline analysis.

Hawaii, South Dakota and West Virginia don’t have established Afghan communities that can help newcomers, though Hawaii’s airlines are among those helping to move Afghans around the rest of the country. Some West Virginia Democrats and business leaders urged more resettlement to combat a population decline in the state.

Most U.S. residents support the resettlement of Afghans: Seventy-two percent of Americans would welcome those who worked with the U.S. or Afghan militaries and have been vetted, according to a recent poll from The Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs.

Yet even in states that are generally welcoming, there has been controversy among Republicans over whether to hold off because of perceived security risks and anti-immigration sentiment among constituents.

In Oklahoma, which is receiving the largest contingent of Afghans per capita, Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt has supported the Afghan resettlement, saying in mid-August that he welcomes those fleeing the Taliban regime “to come to Oklahoma and live in the freedom we hold so dearly.”

However, Oklahoma GOP state Sen. Nathan Dahm has called for more state and local power over refugees and Oklahoma’s Republican Party chair protested the Afghan resettlement in the state.

Other states allocate money to help refugees land there. In New York, which is scheduled to receive 1,143 arrivals, the state set aside funds starting in 2017 that this year total $3 million to keep refugee agencies afloat and extend benefits.

That will help agencies resettle Afghans in upstate industrial communities, said David Dyssegaard Kallick, director of immigration research at the nonprofit New York-based Fiscal Policy Institute, which studies economic policy in the state.

“This is a story about Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Albany and Utica, cities that are urgently in need of population growth, and refugees are very much part of it,” Kallick said. “It’s primarily a human rights issue, but it’s good to know that, as a side effect, they’re going to be a long-term benefit to the local economy.”

In California, some local governments have been pitching in. San Diego County has the only county-funded refugee services agency. The city of Fremont, which has one of the largest concentrations of Afghans in the country, established a fund in August to collect donations for arriving Afghans.

Many Afghan evacuees ask to move to California or the Washington, D.C., area to join the large Afghan communities in those places. But the U.S. Department of State suggested new Afghan arrivals consider other places because the high cost of living in the D.C. area and in some California cities will make it hard for new immigrants who don’t have relatives to host them.

Even in relatively affordable Baltimore, nonprofits might need between $15,000 and $40,000 to house each new family for just a few months, said organization officials at an online meeting hosted by Asylee Women Enterprise, a nonprofit resettlement assistance group.

The organization uses a network of churches and other charities to help arrivals with basic needs such as food, diapers and English classes so their resettlement money goes further, said Tiffany Nelms, its executive director. The group’s first client was an Afghan woman who initially stayed in a Baltimore convent in 2010; now she may come back as a volunteer or paid staffer to help new arrivals adjust.

“The safety net for refugees and asylum seekers in general is still pretty thin,” Nelms told Stateline. “Our Afghan clients are happy to be here and to be safe, but there’s always the grief people have over leaving their country and their families and careers.”

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Tim Henderson
Tim Henderson

Tim Henderson covers demographics for Stateline. He has been a reporter at the Miami Herald, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Journal News.