How the U.S. Can Rebuild Its Refugee System

TThe historic evacuation of over 76,000 Afghans to safety in America, which began last August, was one bright spot of American military withdrawals 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.. The existing refugee resettlement policy, which was established in 1980, does not allow for these program designs. These models promise a better program with greater public support and more chances for individuals, as well as the private sector to take 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.

Technology is an essential tool in everyday life. Operation Allies Welcome gave us the opportunity to utilize tech for resettlement in new ways. IRC, in collaboration with State Department and Independence Fund launched Virtual Afghan Placement and Assistance (VAPA), a program that supports 2,525 Afghan refugees who cannot access resettlement services no matter where they live.

Operation Allies Welcome was able to benefit from overwhelming bipartisan support. There were 37 governors on both sides who ensured that the Afghans’ emergency resettlement would succeed. For those fleeing from the conflict in Ukraine, this same bipartisan support is evident. It is important that we learn the lessons from the Afghan refugees who have just arrived in America.

Now, there are three things to do. First, we need to regulate Afghans’ status so that they are able to stay in 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.. Temporary Protected Status is another program that was added by the Biden administration. This will permit Afghans to extend their stay past the original date in humanitarian parole. The important indicator that the U.S. government doesn’t want them sent back to danger. These programs are subject to expiration and Afghans need to seek asylum in order to continue their stay in America. However, the process of processing asylum requests is slow, which could lead to legal uncertainty for those involved, especially if they are forced into the 1.5-million-person backlog in the immigration court system.

Congress should pass legislation to permit Afghans to become permanent residents through the Afghan Adjustment Act. This will provide an effective solution to ensure that Afghans are allowed to stay in America permanently. It would prevent us from sending people back to Afghanistan that the U.S. military has airlifted. Without Congress’s intervention, policy solutions that only provide temporary relief are available by the Administration.

As part of a U.S. reset, the second task is to secure the innovations that are the backbone of Operation Allies Welcome. Serving refugees from Afghanistan, Ukraine, Pakistan, Syria, Lebanon, Somalia, as well as other countries, the Refugee Admissions Programme serves millions of people.

One example: All refugees should have access to the emergency cash assistance that was provided in Afghanistan to help them flee. A tool for virtual case management should become available throughout the nation, to ensure that every family receives critical benefits as well as assistance once they arrive in the U.S. Each resettlement center should house a public-funded community sponsorship specialist who will support families and churches interested in helping refugees resettle locally. Faced with a housing crisis, the U.S. government must allocate additional funding and partner with municipalities, counties, and towns to find and lease refugee apartments. Recognition of refugee skills is important, as well as funding for research into employment barriers that affect immigrants and refugees in the United States.

A third challenge is to teach the lessons to the Southern border refugees. American welcome shouldn’t be based on 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. A Title 42 exemption has been granted to Ukrainians, which shows that an immediate reversal is possible and necessary in order to offer safety.

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