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Sep. 26—WASHINGTON — Nearly 1,700 Afghans who fled the Taliban takeover of their country in the final days of America's longest war will begin arriving in Washington state as soon as this week, along with more than 400 others heading to Idaho, as part of a major refugee resettlement effort.
Refugee agencies are gearing up to help an initial group of almost 37,000 people settle into new homes across 46 states, according to data provided by the White House. Only California, Texas and Oklahoma are set to receive more Afghan refugees than Washington.
"This mission really does reflect the best of who we are as a country," Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a call with reporters on Friday, describing a "robust, multilayered screening and vetting process" happening at military bases around the United States and overseas before the refugees get to their new communities.
As many as 300 Afghans are set to arrive in Spokane. Mark Finney, director of the Spokane office of World Relief, said welcoming them will take an all-hands-on-deck effort from the local community.
"It's going to take a major collaboration between all kinds of nonprofits and faith communities and individuals and employers of good will," Finney said. "It's a huge lift, especially during a pandemic and a housing crisis, but it's the right thing to do and we know that our community stands with us."
World Relief, which is affiliated with the National Association of Evangelicals, is one of nine religious and community organizations that works with the federal government to help refugees settle into their new communities. Its Spokane office welcomed more than 600 refugees in 2016, but that number fell to about 150 a year in 2019 and 2020 after the Trump administration cut refugee admissions to a historic low, forcing resettlement agencies to downsize.
The Biden administration has restored the refugee admissions limit to pre-Trump levels, but Finney said that after resettling only about 100 people over the past year, receiving 300 Afghans in the coming months will require help from all corners, including Congress.
The White House has asked lawmakers for $6.4 billion to support the massive resettlement operation, but that funding is caught up in a dispute between Democrats and Republicans over legislation to avert a government shutdown and a default on the federal debt.
President Joe Biden announced the effort, dubbed Operation Allies Welcome, in the final hours of the airlift that evacuated more than 122,000 people from Kabul between Aug. 14 and Aug. 30.
Washington and Idaho's top refugee officials say they expect the first refugees to arrive in their states soon, after completing security and health screenings on the military bases.
The number of Afghans headed to each state in the first wave of resettlement is based on capacity determined by local resettlement agencies and state refugee coordinators, according to the White House.
Most of the 1,679 people headed to Washington will settle with the help of five agencies in the Puget Sound region, Washington State Refugee Coordinator Sarah Peterson said Friday, with 300 resettling through World Relief Spokane, 40 through World Relief Tri-Cities and 49 through the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services office in Vancouver.
In Idaho, 320 people are headed for the Boise area with the help of the International Rescue Committee and the Agency for New Americans, with another 100 destined for Twin Falls through the College of Southern Idaho Refugee Center, according to Tara Wolfson, director of the Idaho Office for Refugees.
The roughly 37,000 refugees state agencies have agreed to accept is only a "first wave," and Peterson said that number could nearly double by the end of the year.
While some of those arriving from Afghanistan have applied for Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) for Afghans who worked for the U.S. military and others may qualify for the standard refugee program, the rushed and chaotic evacuation forced the government to bring most of the evacuees to the United States through a separate process called humanitarian parole.
With that status, the new arrivals will have two years to apply for permanent legal status, but the refugee and SIV programs have specific criteria for which not all of them will qualify.
A separate option, the asylum process, is already beset by yearslong delays and would be further overwhelmed by an influx of new applicants from Afghanistan.
Of the more than 60,000 Afghan nationals who have arrived in the United States, Mayorkas told a Senate panel Tuesday, about 13% are U.S. citizens or permanent residents and only 3% have received SIVs. While some of the remaining 84% may qualify for SIVs or the standard refugee resettlement program, many likely would run out of time and join the more than 10 million immigrants living in the country without legal status.
Seeking another option, the White House has asked Congress to create a special process similar to the standard refugee program that would let the Afghans apply for permanent resident status — also called a "green card" — after one year in the United States. The legislation requested by the administration also would make Afghans with humanitarian parole eligible for Medicaid and other social services that are provided through the SIV and refugee programs.
Finney said that while that help from Congress is essential, pulling off the daunting resettlement effort also will take help from local communities. One of the biggest challenges for newly arrived refugees is finding affordable housing. Finney said locals already have approached World Relief Spokane to offer below-market-rate home rentals.
Vacation rental company Airbnb also has offered to provide temporary housing for up to 40,000 Afghan refugees. Finney said World Relief Spokane will have access to some Airbnb credit, though he cautioned that credit may not last long in Spokane's housing market.
In addition to cash donations, Finney said World Relief Spokane is accepting donated cookware, tableware and cleaning supplies. Locals can volunteer and find other ways to help on the World Relief Spokane website.
In the call with Mayorkas on Friday, Operation Allies Welcome coordinator Jack Markell said the effort will require "a whole-of-America approach to safely and securely and effectively welcoming our Afghan allies."
"The response from across the country has been overwhelming," said Markell, a former Democratic governor of Delaware.
"We've seen that Americans are proud of so many Afghans who've supported us over the past 20 years in Afghanistan, and believe that they deserve our support in return."
Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper's managing editor.