By Trey Delida
At the start of 2022, the number of people fleeing persecution, violence and oppression reached an all-time high with 26.6 million refugees in the world — the highest population of forcibly displaced individuals ever recorded.
As political uncertainty remains amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, states are preparing resources to accommodate those seeking resettlement. As state leaders look toward solutions, they’re also learning from the Afghan refugee response.
The U.S. is expected to admit up to 100,000 refugees in an effort to assist Eastern European countries with the millions who have fled Ukraine. As a result, states and partnering organizations will have to find ways to uphold and create arrangements for this major influx.
LEARNING FROM AFGHAN RESETTLEMENT
The United States’ Afghan resettlement efforts exposed several gaps in our nation’s evacuee infrastructure. Thousands of Afghan refugees arrived in the U.S. without approved visas, making access to federal assistance programs impossible. This vast relocation overwhelmed the government’s resettlement system, forcing refugees to be housed in short-term rental housing while awaiting affordable housing.
At the core of this issue is an overwhelmed system that was not built to withstand large fluctuations of people at one time. The Afghan resettlement was the nation’s largest relocation effort since 1975, when the U.S. welcomed thousands of refugees from Vietnam. The projected number of Ukrainian refugees is greater than that of Afghan refugees in 2021.
The Biden administration recently announced a new program that would streamline the refugee application process, but would no longer allow entry to those who come through the Mexican border. Called Uniting for Ukraine, the program requires asylum seekers to have a sponsor and proof of complete vaccinations and to pass background checks. Most applicants will receive two years of residency and work authorization in the United States. Those coming through the formal refugee process will be granted permanent legal residency. In the past, the application process would have begun in a refugee’s home country. In this case, that is no longer possible since U.S. diplomats were pulled from Ukraine. To compensate, the State Department plans to expand the new program’s resettlement operations throughout Eastern Europe.
REFUGEE RESOURCES IN THE STATES
In the wake of Russia’s war on Ukraine, states are improving on existing refugee resources or, in some cases, developing entirely new systems. States are establishing offices dedicated to refugee services, securing funds to expend resources for refugees and enlisting the help of non-profits to assist with demands.
Oregon lawmakers took steps to aid refugees through SB-778, which approved the creation of the state’s Office of Immigrant and Refugee Advancement. The new office received $1.3 million in funding and will connect people with statewide resources for immigrants and refugees.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown appointed Toc Soneoulay-Gillespie to lead the new office in March. Soneoulay-Gillespie, who previously served as director of refugee resettlement at Catholic Charities, was born in a refugee camp in Thailand. Her family — originally from Laos — came to the U.S. shortly after the Vietnam War.
When Oregon began accepting refugees from Afghanistan, budget cuts and infrastructure changes forced some immigrant and refugee agencies to shut down. Since assuming her position, Soneoulay-Gillespie believes that it is a good time to reevaluate local refugee resettlement infrastructure.
“This office is a milestone,” she said. “I think there’s an opportunity to really assess what is working well within the refugee resettlement structure and what are all the other possibilities that we can lean into, especially now, when our legislature and our state are interested and invested in welcoming people from all over the world.”
Since then, the formation of the new Office of Immigrant and Refugee Advancement has allowed Oregon state to provide more dedicated resources, but Soneoulay-Gillespie thinks that more can be done, specifically when it comes to airfare loans.
The International Organization for Migration, a U.N. agency, offers one example of an airfare loan model. Refugees coming to the U.S. travel under a loan program administered by the agency. Refugees agree to repay the cost of their airline ticket over a pre-determined amount of time. The U.S. Committee for Immigrants and Refugees administers the program and oversees the repayment process.
“I love the idea,” Soneoulay-Gillespie said. “The idea is that the funding goes back to pay for other refugees’ airfare. This is the United States of America. We can do better than that. If we as a country really want refugees to be part of the workforce, the success the advancement, the fabric of this country? I know we can do it.”
“When you have family show up to welcome you to the airport, you just feel happy, right? So, we invited community members, mayors and senators to join us at the airport to walk on families,” she said. “Where I come from in Laos, we always give water. We do not ask if one wants water, because it’s our way of saying thank you for making the journey to us.”
Soneoulay-Gillespie says refugee systems need more investment and federal resources to improve and expand current services. Travel loans, naturalization fees and securing housing and employment are all still areas of improvement for case management, and the current window of services for most incoming families and individuals is within the first 90 days of arrival.
“At the federal level, refugee resettlement in its most basic model covers 90 days of service. That’s it,” she said. “How can one person flee war persecution, experience trauma, come to a new country and start their life over again within 90 days? That’s going to take a much larger assessment, a much larger investment in thinking at a federal level.”
The current 90-day service model adopted by most federal agencies and states is point of contention for policymakers and resettlement agencies alike.
Pennsylvania state Sen. Lindsey Williams introduced a bill that would appropriate $2 million in state funds to aid refugee services and partnering organizations across the state while establishing the New Neighbors Fund. These funds would be awarded to the Department of Human Services Refugee Resettlement Program to disburse aid to refugee resources, including help securing short-term and long-term housing, English-as-Second-Language educational support and workforce integration.
One proposed change to the bill is an addendum for refugees to have access to federal resources for longer than the 30-day period after their arrival. Afghan refugees, for example, were able to access support from federal agencies for only one month once they arrived in the states. Williams said that the New Neighbor Fund would extend the time during which federal dollars can be used to support refugees.
“When you’re moving to a new country, 30-90 days is too short,” Williams said. “They’re in a new area, they don’t speak the language and they don’t know the customs. So, this would extend the time that we could provide them resources and broaden the amount that money can be spent on. We really need wraparound supports for these refugees — everything like short term housing, clothing, personal care objects, things to get them situated.”
Community integration is another key focus point for policymakers. One way they are targeting that outcome is through the school system. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and the state’s Department of Education have provided guidance to schools to ensure students are transitioning as seamlessly as possible.
The department sent a letter to school communities outlining legal obligations related to enrolling refugee students and providing resources. These included requirements to provide translation and interpretation services, prompt enrollment, access to special education and language services.
According to a report from United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, roughly 48% of refugee children remain out of school after arrival in the U.S. For young refugees, schooling is not only vital to their development — it’s also a valuable tool for integatrating students and their families into a new community.
PARTNERING WITH NONPROFIT ORGANIZATIONS
While enrollment in school systems is imperative for many families seeking asylum, state leaders often rely on nonprofits and other refugee service organizations.
In Oregon, state leaders and resettlement agencies work closely with Refugee Care Collective, a small nonprofit that compiles welcome kits filled with household items, cleaning supplies, personal care items and more for incoming refugees.
New American Pathways, a nonprofit based in Atlanta, Georgia, serves refugee communities from their arrival through their citizenship confirmation, providing resources and assistance to help refugees meet their goals. Equipped with 80 employees who can converse in 21 languages, the organization’s programming targets four unique areas of growth — safety and stability, self-sufficiency, success and service.
Paedia Mixon, CEO of New American Pathways, says changes in resettlement infrastructure, budget cuts and the reduction of policies surrounding resettlement were the most challenging obstacles when states began preparing for Afghan refugees.
Mixon said states can learn from the Afghan resettlement experience, and that a good rapport between state leaders and nonprofits is extremely helpful when it comes to assisting refugees.
“I think it’s really important that state leaders are aware of the refugee resettlement agencies in their state and have a good communication and a close working relationship,” Mixon said. “I think one of the things that we do well in Georgia is that agencies collaborate with each other. We meet regularly with the State Refugee Coordinator and State Refugee Health Coordinator.”
Georgia’s Coalition of Refugee Stakeholders allows for coordination between state and non-profit organizations. The coalition is a collaborative body of resettlement agencies and other refugee and immigrant service organizations in the state. They organize a quarterly consultation meeting, inviting government officials, nonprofit representatives and community members to hear input, provide updates and share resources. This partnership has opened the door for state agencies and nonprofits to share important, timely refugee information in an ever-changing climate. State organizations can provide additional assistance to these communities
Other states, including California, Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon and others have a similar model through the Office of New Americans. As a state network, the Office of New Americans brings together state policy leaders to discuss immigration best practices. Member states and participating states share research and policy ideas and have access to additional resources from partners like World Education Services and New American Economy.
Since the passage of the Refugee Act in 1980, the United States has admitted more than 3.1 million refugees from across the world. As the number of displaced individuals continues to rise, the United States’ stance on accepting refugees stands firm in a statement from President Biden:
“At a time when the number of refugees and other displaced persons has reached an alarming and historic high — more than 82 million worldwide — the United States has a moral obligation to ensure that refugees have access to life-saving care, opportunities to pursue an education, and livelihoods that allow them to live with dignity and hope for the future,” Biden said.