Swamped With Afghan Refugees, U.S. Appeals to Decimated Resettlement Groups

More than 75,000 Afghan refugees from the just-ended 20-year-long war in Afghanistan have been admitted to the U.S., and an overwhelmed U.S. State Department is turning to the private sector for help in resettling them.

The problem is that the U.S. resettlement community is still trying to recover from a battle of its own.

"After 20 years of occupation, lots of folks have strong feelings, commitments and a sense of responsibility toward the folks in Afghanistan," Danielle Grigsby, Director of External Affairs at Community Sponsorship Hub, told Newsweek. "But the domestic infrastructure to welcome and resettle newcomers was decimated under the past administration, and that building back process is still very much ongoing."

The Trump administration led with policies and rhetoric aimed to deter refugees and asylum seekers from entering the United States, Grigsby said. It stripped legal protections for asylum seekers, banned immigration from over a dozen countries, and slashed the annual refugee admissions cap from 110,000, set by President Obama in 2017, to just 15,000 in 2021.

From 2016 to 2020, the number of refugees admitted to the United States dropped by 86%, according to the Center for American Progress. At the same time, the number of pending immigration court cases rose.

"Resettlement agencies on the local level were being forced to close," Grigsby said.

Despite rising demand for resettlement, lower refugee admission levels resulted in reduced funding for refugee organizations. Without funding, the capacity of resettlement infrastructure was dramatically reduced, extending times for those seeking asylum or resettlement to an average of 58 months — just under 5 years — according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

"You have somebody come into office who is anti-refugee and decides to shut down all of this capacity," Beth Broadway, president of Interfaith Works of Central New York, told Newsweek. "Now it has to be rebuilt."

Due to its limited capacity to handle refugees, the State Department has relied on local agencies to help facilitate this massive resettlement effort.

"The Afghan refugee situation is constantly changing, and the government is having to address huge human needs in a very short period of time," Broadway said. "So they have been asking all of us to quickly build our capacities, which means that we've been hiring a lot of people to work as case managers and support people for housing."

For the last four months, Interfaith Works of Central New York has been asked to increase its capacity for resettlement from just 50 people in October to over 200 by the end of February, according to Broadway.

"It's been a time of stress and long hours that can be exhausting at times," she added. "A lot of work goes into resettlement, and all of the staff that we currently have are handling a very large caseload."

But concerned people all over the U.S. have been stepping up, like Harv Hilowitz of upstate New York. He has worked tirelessly over the past two months to organize a "Welcome Circle," a group of Americans willing to help resettle some of the Afghan refugees in New York's mid-Hudson Valley.

"I became aware of the situation in Afghanistan — the chaotic pull out, and then the refugee crisis on our shores — so I decided, after a couple of months of watching the news, to do something about it," he told Newsweek.

Hilowitz is part of a multi-level effort to resettle newly arrived Afghan refugees, while rebuilding a resettlement infrastructure decimated by policies of the previous administration.

President Joe Biden has committed to address these capacity issues and "reassert American leadership and American values when it comes to refugee admissions." But he acknowledged the challenges ahead, writing in an official statement that, "We are working quickly to undo the damage of the last four years. It will take some time, but that work is already underway."

Since taking office, he has taken a number of positive steps, including lifting previous travel restrictions, raising the refugee admissions cap to 125,000 in fiscal year 2022, and accepting some 75,000 Afghan refugees.

While the federal government takes steps to regain lost ground, many resettlement agencies are operating over capacity, and thousands of refugees remain in need of urgent assistance, said Christopher George, Executive Director of Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, one of the largest refugee agencies in the Northeast.

"The State Department brought in roughly 75,000 Afghans to the United States," he said. "They needed them to be resettled, so they turned to the refugee resettlement world and said, 'How many can you resettle?'"

George told Newsweek that capacity for resettlement will remain far lower than demand for the foreseeable future. While agencies like his are still able to operate with limited resources, thousands of Afghans will likely remain on military bases through the end of winter.

"There's a gap between the total number of Afghans who are here and the total number that refugee resettlement agencies have the capacity to resettle," he said. "So what do you do?"

One solution that is proving effective is modeled on a successful program developed in Canada.

"There is a new program called sponsor circles, that would resettle Afghan families, bring them off the military bases and resettle them with volunteers and communities all across the country," George said.

Launched in October, the program is gaining traction.

"We were hearing from communities across the United States that they wanted to do something and be helpful," Grigsby said. "This program gives these community groups that want to be tangibly involved the opportunity to do so, getting folks directly off of bases and into communities."

Hilowitz is part of this program.

In December, he began reaching out by sending emails, letters and dozens of phone calls to resettlement agencies across the country. He was informed about the Sponsor Circle program and was inspired to take action.

"I reached out to people that I knew, sent letters to the editor and contacted organizations,"Hilowitz told Newsweek. "After three weeks, we have about 20 volunteers in our sponsorship welcome circle here in Kingston, New York."

"We are currently identifying local resources so that when we are paired with a family, we will be able to resettle them and integrate them into the community," he added.

Since launching four months ago, The Sponsor Circle Program for Afghans has resettled nearly 500 individuals, with around 30 sponsor circles across the country.

"It's heartening, encouraging and emotional to see this interest across aisles and across states," said Grigsby. "This is very much rooted at the heart of American values, welcoming others, keeping our commitments and honoring our responsibilities."

George hopes this community-centered model will not only help to alleviate some of the pressure on resettlement agencies, but encourage communities to be more welcoming of others and embody the spirit of America.

"It is a great American tradition to help refugees who have suffered so much," he said.

"Community-based programs are not only an excellent way to resettle refugees, but they build public support for refugee resettlement," he added. "They educate the community, because there is no better way to learn about resettlement than to actually help do it."

Afghan refugees
FILE - Afghan refugee girls watch a soccer game from a distance near the Village at the Ft. McCoy U.S. Army base in Ft. McCoy, Wisc., in this Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021, file photo. Ordinary Americans and the nation's airlines are combining to donate miles and cash to help Afghan refugees resettle in the United States. Barbara Davidson/Pool Photo via AP, File