For Afghans, the Hard Part of Assimilation Begins Now

Afghan evacuee resettlement is now in Phase Three, the crucial stage where assimilation, the Biden administration’s forbidden word, will determine how their American lives evolve.

Phase One occurred when the Afghans boarded, some peacefully, others with force, outbound planes. Phase Two happened when evacuees were temporarily housed in U.S. military bases abroad and across America. And last week, the Biden administration announced that the last group of evacuees has been relocated from a New Jersey military site to more than 200 communities, joining 76,000 other Afghans spread across the U.S. since America abruptly withdrew from Kabul. Children comprise about 40 percent of the total evacuee population.

Since the evacuees first stepped foot onto U.S. soil, they’ve benefited from a special halal food menu, faith-based services, English language instruction, vaccinations for COVID-19 and other diseases including measles, assistance with immigration paperwork, and medical services for medevacked patients and pre-natal treatment for pregnant women.

For now, at least, the media, based on information given to it by the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is reporting that, with cooperation from nonprofit resettlement agencies and private citizen groups, the Afghans are transitioning smoothly into their new circumstances. “I think the biggest lesson for the administration to take away from this operation is that the American public is overwhelmingly in support of immigrants and refugees being a part of their communities,” said National Immigration Forum president Ali Noorani optimistically.

But now comes the challenging part of the Afghans’ long journey. From unpublished data CBS News obtained, of the more than 67,000 Afghans processed at the domestic military bases, 35,128 evacuees – or over half – have been resettled in Texas, California, Virginia, Washington, Pennsylvania, New York, Florida and Arizona. The evacuees’ presence will place additional burdens on the states’ already strained budgets for public schools, health care and other affirmative services, costs that will hit taxpayers in their pocketbooks. Individual states had no voice in the resettlement process. As of year-end 2021, analysts estimated that the cost to resettle Afghans was about $7 billion.

Another concern that officials continue to gloss over is how thoroughly the Afghan evacuees were vetted. Under intense questioning during a November Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas admitted that, despite some news reports to the contrary, “We are not conducting in-person, full refugee interviews of 100 percent” of Afghan evacuees. Those unvetted may pose a threat to the homeland.

The immediate urgency among the resettlement agencies is addressing the evacuees’ immigration status. For now, they’ve been granted humanitarian parole, usually reserved for individual, emergency cases, not granted to thousands at a time. Under immigration law, the Afghans aren’t eligible for permanent residency. Qualifying as refugees, potentially another option for a Green Card, takes years to complete. While their status gets sorted out, the evacuees will receive lifetime valid work permits, a benefit that will allow them to enter the labor market.

An important but unresolved question concerns the wisdom of removing people from their native land, culture, language, families and religion, and placing them literally overnight in an entirely different society and surroundings. In a Foreign Affairs article titled “Help Refugees Help Themselves,” authors Alexander Betts, University of Oxford Professor of Forced Migration and International Affairs, and Paul Collier, a British development economist, wrote that an effective refugee policy should “improve the lives of the refugees in the short term” and the prospects of the region [from where they migrated] in the long term, and it should also serve the economic and security interests of the host states.

Restated, Betts and Collier think refugees, or in this case, evacuees, should return home to build back the country that they fled. Collier expanded on his concept in The New York Times when he wrote that the U.S. priority should be to design refugee policies that will “reconcile our duty of rescue with the legitimate concerns of post-conflict governments to attract back the people who could rebuild their countries.” Lawful permanent residency does the opposite; it keeps people anchored to the U.S.

The solution of Betts and Collier has support from, among others, the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader who said of refugees at a conference in Sweden, “Receive them, help them, educate them … but ultimately they should develop their own country.”

Talk has already begun about how to frame a Ukrainian resettlement policy given the escalation of the Ukraine-Russia conflict and anticipating the fallout. The Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service already distributed a press release stating, “U.S. and its partners must prepare for robust humanitarian assistance.” The Biden White House as well as future presidential administrations should realize that the U.S. has limits to growth and to its capacity to correct, through resettlement, all that ails the world.