Americans prepare to welcome thousands of Afghan refugees, even as political rhetoric heats up
As divisions emerge among some Republicans in Washington over how to handle the refugee crisis in Afghanistan, resettlement groups have been inundated with calls from ordinary Americans seeking to assist the waves of Afghan citizens who have begun arriving in the United States.
Several governors across the political spectrum have joined the effort with offers of aid and messages that refugees would be welcome in their states, a sharp contrast to some conservatives who warned that the crisis could spark an “invasion” of unvetted refugees.
Even in Texas, a state divided over immigration policy, advocates say residents have shown strong support for the thousands of refugees expected to land there. A training session scheduled for volunteers Saturday had to be moved online because more than 200 people had signed up — despite the state being a covid hot spot.
“We have never seen this kind of increase in people wanting to volunteer,” said Jacqueline Buzas, a program supervisor for Refugee Services of Texas. “We have people calling to say, ‘I have an extra bedroom.’ Or, ‘I’m retired and have this extra house.’ People understand the human aspects of this, having to flee this life-or-death situation. And they just open the door.”
In Texas, the refugees — many of whom were granted special visas because they assisted the U.S. military as interpreters or did other work — are expected to be sent to Fort Bliss in El Paso, where more than a thousand unaccompanied migrant children from the border also are being housed.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas,, who visited the base Tuesday, said he had been told by officials that the installation was preparing to take in as many as 10,000 refugees in the coming weeks.
“My prayers at this point [are] we aren’t too late to get them out of the country,” Cornyn told local reporters, saying that the sprawling military complex was large enough for everyone.
“Fort Bliss is a big place,” Cornyn said. “The [post commander] briefed me this morning and said they have more than enough space to accommodate the Afghan refugees. My hope is that we can get those people out of Afghanistan that we’ve worked with these past 20 years because if we can’t, many of them will simply be killed along with their families.”
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who has advocated limits on refugees even though his father emigrated from Cuba, echoed Cornyn during a stop outside Dallas on Wednesday. “We have an obligation not to leave people to die the hands of the Taliban for the crime of helping America,” Cruz said.
But he called for the refugees to be properly vetted and said he planned to hold hearings on the Biden administration’s handling of Afghanistan. “We also have an obligation to keep our citizens safe,” he said.
The State Department has approved 34,500 Special Immigrant Visas, or SIVs, for Afghans who assisted the U.S. military over two decades, but the approval process has been slow, angering advocates who say those who remain behind are in danger. More than 20,000 SIV applicants were in the pipeline waiting for approval as cities fell and the Taliban neared Kabul, authorities said last month.
The State Department said this week it had processed 7,000 for evacuation from the Afghan capital, but the tense situation at the Kabul airport, where thousands remain gathered, pleading for help, has left any formal migration process in chaos. Resettlement groups — which are required to have furnished apartments for families when they arrive — say they’ve had as little as 24 hours’ notice to plan for incoming Afghan refugees.
The SIV application was long “riddled with errors and delays,” said Sunil Varghese, who serves as policy director at the International Refugee Assistance Project, which has had Afghan clients killed while waiting for their visas. “Then Kabul fell and things got worse.”
While the debate over migrants and border policy has raged, Texas traditionally has welcomed many refugees. However, conservative state lawmakers have repeatedly sought to limit their numbers. In 2015, Attorney General Ken Paxton, R, sued the Obama administration to block the arrival of Syrian refugees — a case that was later thrown out.
In January 2020, Gov. Greg Abbott, R, announced that the state would opt out of refugee resettlement altogether after an executive order by President Donald Trump allowed states to do so. At the time Abbott, whose wife is the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants, argued that Texas, the epicenter of mass migration from Central America, had “carried more than its share by also resettling refugees. A federal judge later ruled states could not opt out of the refugee resettlement program, even as the Trump administration dramatically decreased the number of available visas.
This week Abbott, who Tuesday announced that he has a breakthrough case of COVID-19, has been silent on the issue of Afghan refugees — even as other conservative governors, including Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt and Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, both Republicans, have said they would welcome such arrivals. A spokesman for Abbott did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
So far, only a few conservatives — including Fox News’s Tucker Carlson and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga. — have been openly hostile to the idea of accepting Afghan refugees, with Carlson comparing it to being “invaded.”
“I always say that what you see many times on the news or the political view of immigrants or Afghans or other nationalities that are being resettled or what’s happening at the border, it just doesn’t reflect the community’s view and the role it plays,” Buzas said. “It’s just so removed from the kindness and selflessness we actually see from people who understand when it comes to life or death.”
Refugee Services of Texas, one of more than a dozen agencies around the state that work to resettle refugees, said it was assisting more than 300 Afghans expected to arrive in the next few weeks from Fort Lee in Virginia, and was dramatically ramping up operations in expectation of potentially hundreds more. Buzas, a supervisor in the program’s Dallas office, said it was working quickly to hire more caseworkers in anticipation of those arrivals.
The group finds temporary housing for refugees and provides a welcome package, including clothing, household supplies and a cellphone.
In Wisconsin, Gov. Tony Evers, D, said he had been told that as many as 2,000 refugees could be sent to Fort McCoy, a sprawling military base in the rural southwestern part of the state that previously hosted roughly 14,000 Cuban refugees in 1980.
Local television crews filmed several motor coach buses idling at the base as part of preparations Tuesday — though Evers and other state officials said they didn’t know when or exactly how many Afghans would arrive.
Amid a fresh surge of coronavirus cases in the state, Evers said he had been told there would be screenings to make sure arrivals were vaccinated.
Republicans in Wisconsin offered mixed reactions. Sen. Ron Johnson, R, a staunch Trump ally, seemed to express support for hosting the refugees while taking a shot at the Biden administration. “In the midst of the disastrous abandonment of our allies in Afghanistan, I am glad that some will be able to reach safety in the U.S.,” Johnson said in a tweet.
But Rep. Tom Tiffany, whose district is in northwestern Wisconsin, echoed conservative media commentary, saying the plan “deeply disturbed” him because it raises security issues for local communities. His district does not include Fort McCoy.
“The White House should abandon this dangerous, ready-fire-aim plan and mitigate risk by transporting Afghans to safe third countries for vetting before bringing thousands of unknown people into Wisconsin or other U.S. states,” Tiffany said in a statement. “Our national security has been deeply degraded in the months since January 20 and allowing the mass entry of foreigners from a known hotbed of terrorism will only make this situation far worse.”
In Wisconsin, which has seen fewer refugees than most states, agencies also were scrambling to prepare for what could be an influx of new arrivals.
“We really have no idea how many people are coming or what the time frame is,” said Dawn Berney, executive director of Jewish Social Services in Madison, which has resettled 14 Afghan families in recent weeks. She noted that the process has been “chaotic.”
Berney and her staff typically doesn’t work or look at their phones or emails on Saturdays because of the religious sabbath, but they’ve made an exception in this case.
“There is an exception in Jewish law when somebody’s is life at stake. And this certainly qualifies for that,” she said.
Like other agencies, JSS finds temporary housing for arrivals — often paying up to four months of rent - and provides them with a prepaid cellphone. Berney said one of the dilemmas they are facing is a shortage of housing in Madison. “Some agencies turn to Airbnbs, but here in Madison, they are just too expensive,” she said. “So now we’re looking at extended-stay hotels.”
From her home in rural Minnesota, Caroline Clarin, who ran a U.S. Department of Agriculture program in Afghanistan, has spent hours trading calls and emails with lawmakers and military officials trying to evacuate dozens of Afghans she worked with — including several who had spent years waiting for visas.
Since 2017, Clarin and her wife, Sheril, have helped five Afghan families approved for special visas come to the United States — the most recent arrival in May. She and a former Army commander she worked with combined forces to try to help more people — but she worried it wouldn’t be enough.
“We’re getting really good at the paperwork,” Clarin said. “But people need more help than having the visa and a piece of paper that says you can go to the airport. . . . Because you can’t get to the airport.”
She tearfully described a phone call from a young woman in Kabul who had applied for a visa in 2019 but was still waiting for approval. The woman asked Clarin if she should risk going to the airport and what would happen if she didn’t try to get out.
“These are people who helped us, who we invested in, who trusted us,” Clarin said. “To me, this is just like leaving a U.S. soldier behind. And I can’t believe we, as a nation, are accepting that.”
Blake Hamilton, senior vice president of programs at the International Institute of St. Louis, which has settled nearly 700 Afghans over the years, and more than 47 since July, said the group expects to take in at least 1,000 more refugees and special visa holders over the next year.
The crisis hits the agency as it faces a confluence of challenges, including the pandemic and the closure of dozens of resettlement centers on the country as the flow of refugees became a trickle during the Trump administration. In fiscal year 2020, only about 11,800 refugees arrived in the United States, the lowest since the refugee program was established, according to State Department records.
An emotional scene played out at the St. Louis airport earlier this week when Mohammad, 48, an Afghan who immigrated to the United States in 2018, welcomed a nephew, Bashir, and his family of four, whose visa was hastily granted just before Kabul fell. He asked that his last name not be used out of fear for his relatives who remain in northern Afghanistan.
Mohammad welcomed the family over a dinner that featured a 50-pound lamb he had purchased for the occasion, served in traditional Afghan style with basmati rice studded with carrots and raisins.
“We were so much happy,” he said, but the celebration was tainted by worry about those left behind. “Some of my family members in Kunduz, they are in trouble. Every day they are in fear that ‘they will harm me’ or ‘they will hurt us.’ It is a difficult situation.”