Op/Ed

Eric Davis: How the refugee program works

Last week, Gov. Phil Scott announced that up to 100 Afghan refugees would be resettled in Vermont over the next few months, as part of a cooperative program among the federal government, state governments, and nongovernmental refugee resettlement organizations.

Almost 65,000 Afghan refugees have been relocated to the United States since the Taliban took control of their nation last month. Another 30,000, many now being housed in temporary quarters in Germany and Qatar, are expected to arrive in the United States over the next year. 

Most of these refugees are people who worked for the United States government in some capacity – as translators, employees of the Defense Department and State Department, or as government contractors – during the 20-year Afghan War, as well as members of their families. 

A few of those who have arrived are already U.S. citizens, and about 15 percent of them have already been granted lawful permanent residence status because of their work supporting the war effort. Most of the remainder will be admitted to the U.S. as parolees, and will be able to apply for green cards. Green card holders may live and work permanently in the United States. After a period of at least five years, those holding lawful permanent residence status may apply for naturalization as U.S. citizens.

The newly-arrived Afghan refugees are being temporarily housed on eight military bases in the United States, where they are being provided with medical checks, including COVID-19 vaccinations, and initial screening regarding housing, work, and educational needs. 

Much of this screening is provided by staff from nine federally approved national refugee resettlement agencies. Some of these agencies, such as Episcopal Migration Ministries and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, are faith-based organizations, although they provide services to persons of all faiths and none. Other agencies, such as the International Rescue Committee and the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, are secular organizations.

To coordinate the work of federal departments, state governments, and the resettlement agencies, President Biden has appointed Jack Markell, who served as governor of Delaware from 2009 to 2017, to head a group of staff in the Executive Office of the President. Markell and his team will work with the Departments of State, Homeland Security, Justice, the CDC, and other federal agencies to ensure maximum cooperation and partnership with state governments and non-governmental organizations. As a former chair of the National Governors Association, Markell is well-known among state officials.

The Biden Administration is asking state governments to establish their own coordinating agencies to serve as a principal point of contact with federal departments and the refugee support organizations on the work of Afghan refugee resettlement. Here in Vermont, the State Refugee Office in the Agency of Human Services will serve in this capacity. The office is headed by Tracy Dolan, who has 25 years of experience in public health, most recently as Deputy Commissioner in the Department of Health.

The resettlement agency responsible for the new arrivals in Vermont is the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI). The State Refugee Office and USCRI will work with schools, employers, landlords, and health and social services programs to meet the educational, employment, housing, and health needs of the Afghans being resettled in Vermont. The first wave of refugees to arrive in Vermont will be resettled in Chittenden County.

The White House has asked Congress to appropriate $6.5 billion to support the costs of the Afghan refugee resettlement program in the fiscal year that begins October 1. Since this request will get caught up in larger budgetary conflicts on Capitol Hill in the weeks ahead, state governments will look to other sources to fund the refugee resettlement program in the short term. Dolan has said that Vermont will look to already-available funds from FEMA and the American Rescue Plan to cover some of the immediate costs of refugee resettlement, until additional federal resources are provided.

Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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