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How the U.S. Can Rebuild Its Refugee System

The historic evacuation of more than 76,000 Afghans from Kabul to safety in the United States beginning last August was one of the few bright spots of the American military withdrawal from Afghanistan. A month on since most of the U.S. government sites housing evacuees closed their doors, the Biden Administration announced plans to welcome up to 100,000 Ukrainians and others fleeing Russia’s aggression. While the primary pathway to safety provided under the “Uniting for Ukraine” program will be humanitarian parole, up to one-fifth of the promised 100,000 individuals fleeing Russian aggression may seek safety via the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.

The Afghan relocation effort, known as Operation Allies Welcome, was the single biggest evacuation event since the Vietnam war—and has ushered in innovations that advance the model of refugee admission and integration in the U.S.. These program models were not permitted under the existing refugee resettlement program, which has seen limited innovation since it was introduced in 1980. They hold the promise of a more effective program, with more popular support, and more opportunities for people, including the private sector, to play their part.

For example, the IRC’s humanitarian experience in over 40 countries has taught us that assistance works best when funding is directly provided to families in need. With Operation Allies Welcome, the Biden Administration is starting to provide modest cash assistance to Afghans who have moved into communities, rather than having resettlement agencies purchase items on their behalf—empowering Afghan families to tailor assistance to meet their own specific needs.

We also know that technology is a critical tool in day-to-day life, but Operation Allies Welcome provided an opportunity to apply tech to resettlement in a new way. In close coordination with the State Department and the Independence Fund, the IRC has launched the Virtual Afghan Placement and Assistance (VAPA) program to support 2,500 Afghan individuals who have not been able to access resettlement services wherever they are, remotely.

Operation Allies Welcome benefitted from overwhelming bipartisan support, with 37 governors from both sides of the political aisle ensuring the emergency resettlement of these Afghans would be a success. This same bipartisan support is on show for those fleeing the war in Ukraine. As the evacuation operation winds down and newly-arrived Afghans adjust to life in America, it is vital that the right lessons are learned to ensure that the refugee resettlement program is properly calibrated to respond to future crises, including Ukraine.

There are three tasks now. The first is to regularize the status of Afghans to ensure they can stay in their new communities. At the moment they hold “humanitarian parole” status, which is only a temporary fix that confers no clear pathway to lawful permanent status in the U.S.. The Biden Administration recently added another program, called Temporary Protected Status, that will allow Afghans to stay beyond the initial date set in humanitarian parole on a renewable basis, an important signal that the U.S. government does not want to send them back to harm. However, both of these programs have an expiration date, and Afghans will have to apply for asylum if they want to stay in the U.S. permanently. But the system for processing asylum claims is laborious, and threatens legal limbo for the individuals concerned, especially if they end up being forced into the 1.5 million-person backlog of the immigration court system.

The best way to provide a sure remedy so that Afghans can stay in the U.S. permanently is for Congress to pass a law to allow Afghans to apply to be permanent residents via an Afghan Adjustment Act. This would insure that we avoid the surreal idea of sending back people airlifted out of Afghanistan by the U.S. military gives, and absent an act of Congress, the Administration is limited to policy remedies that are short-term band-aids at best.

The second task is to lock in the innovation that underpins Operation Allies Welcome as part of a reset of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, serving Afghans, those fleeing Ukraine, and other refugees across the globe, which number in the millions.

To highlight a few: the cash assistance piloted in response to the Afghan evacuation should be made available to all refugees. Virtual case management should be a tool available nationwide, ensuring that no family is left out of critical benefits and assistance upon arrival in the U.S. Each resettlement office should host a publicly-funded community sponsorship expert to support groups, like families or churches, interested in supporting resettlement locally or hosting a refugee. In the face of a national housing crisis, the U.S. government should allocate more funding to meet higher housing prices and work with cities, counties, or towns to identify and lease apartments for refugees. Refugee skills should be recognized, including devoting funding to studying employment barriers for immigrants and refugees across the country.

The third task is to apply the lessons to those who qualify for refugee status along the Southern border. The American will to welcome should not discriminate by nationality. The Biden administration should continue with the rollback of Title 42—a policy that denies asylum seekers their legal right to seek safety in the U.S.—and invest in an asylum system that evaluates every claim expeditiously and fairly. Ukrainians have benefited from an exemption from Title 42, demonstrating that a full reversal of the policy is not only possible, but necessary to provide a pathway to safety.


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