Afghan evacuees face challenges securing visas, housing, and other necessities in New Haven. Refugee resettlement agencies are working to help.
Isabel Arroyo | firstname.lastname@example.org In the wake of the 2021 Fall of Kabul, U.S. national leadership pledged to resettle tens of
thousands of evacuated Afghans within American borders through Operation Allies Welcome. As hundreds of Afghan evacuees arrive in Connecticut and specifically in New Haven, they face hurdles securing permanent residence, housing, education, and other necessities. IRIS spokeswoman Ann O’Brien and New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker explain how nonprofit resettlement agencies and local governments work to support Afghan evacuees as they adjust to new lives in the United States.
(“Evacuees boarding a C-17 Globemaster III at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Afghanistan, 18 August.” Image Courtesy of Lance Cpl. Nicholas Guevara/U.S. Central Command Public Affairs. Public Domain)
“Every resettlement agency, every immigration legal service provider is trying to help this population. We literally are trying to gather as many lawyers as possible and train them to take on these cases, because there are not enough trained immigration lawyers in the country to process all of these cases in less than two years.”
Ann O’Brien is a spokeswoman for Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS), a New Haven-based nonprofit dedicated to supporting immigrants and refugees as they begin new lives in the United States. Since the fall of Kabul to Taliban forces in August 2021, organizations like IRIS have been working around the clock to resettle tens of thousands of rapidly evacuated Afghan citizens.
Over 68,000 Afghan nationals have arrived in the U.S. through the federal government’s Afghan assistance program, Operation Allies Welcome. Around 8,000 more remain in temporary housing on military bases as their resettlements are processed. This population is made up of present or former employees of the U.S. government and their families, as well as translators, journalists, activists, humanitarian aid workers, and others whose careers put them at risk in Afghanistan.
Over 400 Afghan evacuees have been resettled in Connecticut, with 300 more expected to arrive within the year. 200 evacuees have been settled in New Haven.
Processing the immigration of so many people would be daunting under normal circumstances; in the wake of Trump- and early Biden-era refugee caps and resettlement budget restrictions, which forced immigrant services organizations like IRIS to downsize, these numbers border on overwhelming. Even as evacuees work to adjust to new homes, schools, and jobs in New Haven, for many, a long-term future in the U.S. remains uncertain.
Despite the urgency of the Afghan evacuation, resettlement to the United States is a complex and lengthy process. The paths to permanent residence and to citizenship look different depending on the type of documentation an evacuee holds, and in many cases a clear one might not exist. Nationwide, it is estimated that 36,000 Afghan evacuees have no clear path to permanent residence at all.
Some of the evacuees IRIS works with have Special Immigrant Visas (SIV). These evacuees met a series of stringent requirements that included working for the U.S. government in Afghanistan for more than a year. Upon arrival, SIV recipients automatically receive a green card, Lawful Permanent Resident status, and eligibility for citizenship after five years in the United States.
The majority of Afghan evacuees, however, are not SIV recipients, either because they do not meet the requirements or because they are awaiting approval of their SIV applications. Most are on humanitarian parole, a program which allows resettlement for urgent humanitarian reasons. Unlike a Special Immigrant Visa, humanitarian parole is limited in duration and does not come with a path to citizenship attached. It also expires quickly:
“It's a short term immigration status,” O’Brien explained. “They need to get that status adjusted in less than two years.”
Some protection is also provided by the recent extension of Temporary Protected Status to all Afghan evacuees who settled in the U.S. prior to March 15, 2022. While it lasts, this status prevents them from being deported. Nevertheless, O’Brien emphasized that 18 months of TPS is not a long-term solution.
“It’s ultimately the same in that it's temporary. It's not a permanent path to citizenship, like a Special Immigrant Visa holder or refugee status would be.”
The price tag for a “permanent path” to citizenship can be high. Most evacuees on humanitarian parole will try to adjust their status through the asylum process, but with private asylum lawyers ranging in cost from $1000 to well over $7000, thousands of evacuees turn to nonprofits like IRIS for pro bono legal representation. The arrival of so many Afghan evacuees has placed these nonprofits under significant strain: IRIS, for example, has five pro bono attorneys for 430 clients.
“The immigration courts are backed up,” O’Brien summarized. “There are just not enough attorneys and they cost too much.”
She tells me that one solution is an Afghan Adjustment Act. Outlined and proposed by immigration advocates, the concept of an Afghan Adjustment Act has garnered support from national security experts, refugee resettlement groups, attorneys, and local communities. As currently envisioned, the Act would allow certain Afghan evacuees to apply for permanent status after a year of humanitarian parole in the United States and would protect them from deportation while their applications are pending.
Advocates of an Afghan Adjustment Act point out that the United States has passed similar legislation to expedite resettlement and create a path to Lawful Permanent Residence before––specifically, during other conflicts and humanitarian crises in which the U.S. played a major role. For example, the U.S. passed (albeit insufficient) legislation to resettle evacuated South Vietnamese allies after the Fall of Saigon, and to resettle evacuated Kurdish allies during and after the Gulf War.
Advocates also argue that the bill would relieve some of the burden currently weighing down the SIV application process, which has over 18,000 cases in backlog, and the asylum process, with over 400,000 cases in backlog.
Toward the end of the interview, O’Brien reiterated IRIS’s position:
“The most important thing that can be done for this population is to pass [an] Afghan Adjustment Act.”
FINDING NEW HOMES
(Apartment complexes in New Haven. Image courtesy of Elm City Communities)
While evacuees navigate a complicated immigration system, they must also secure housing. Those entering the United States face a post-pandemic housing crisis that has driven up average rents by 12 percent statewide and 19 percent in New Haven over the last year and a half. More and more landlords routinely request up to three months of rent up front as a security deposit for renters––a sum well beyond the means of most evacuees.
Government agencies, state rental assistance funds, and the services of organizations like IRIS have all been important for housing arriving Afghans. In an interview for this article, New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker responded to questions about how the city promoted affordable housing for Afghan evacuees by referring to housing protections for New Haveners more generally.
“A percentage of those individuals [struggling to find housing] are refugees. But there are thousands of other residents in the city that struggle to access affordable housing, so we feel that we shouldn’t prioritize one group over another,” Elicker said. “And that we should make sure to support everyone having more access to affordable housing.”
He references the 2021 American Rescue Plan (ARP) and other COVID-related federal stimulus bills, which have funded state-level rental assistance initiatives relevant to refugee and non-refugee populations alike. Before the program stopped taking applications in February 2022, Afghan evacuees were eligible to apply to UniteCT, which was an emergency rental assistance program established using federal COVID-19 relief funds.
During our interview in February, Mayor Elicker expressed hope that the Board of Alders would approve more funding to support the housing needs of New Haveners in general:
“Should the Board of Alders approve our proposal, that will give us more flexibility to support individuals––including refugees who may have a lower income––to access more funds to pay rent.”
Some local advocacy groups are also trying to channel more ARP funding into housing. One such group is the Sisters in Diaspora Collective, a local coalition of immigrant and refugee women advocating for affordable homes. They contend that the $10 million dollars in ARP funding for New Haven’s “I’m Home” housing initiative is not enough to meet the needs of a city where half of households spend over 30% of their income on housing costs alone. The Collective is pushing for $62.5 million of New Haven’s $115 million in ARP funds to be invested in affordable housing for everyone in New Haven, regardless of citizenship or evacuee status.
Speaking on behalf of IRIS, O’Brien touched on both the usefulness and the limitations of existing pandemic-era protections in helping evacuees with housing:
“The kind of pandemic relief funds that have been made available are not huge dollar amounts, but they are significant,” she explained. “It's a lot better than what we're going to be able to produce on our own.”
Housing costs are not the only challenge evacuees face when looking for homes. Many also contend with language barriers and a total lack of credit history that makes landlords hesitant to rent to them. To meet these challenges, IRIS and other resettlement agencies have offered translation services to would-be tenants; to minimize risk to landlords, some resettlement agencies, including IRIS, commit to assisting families financially for up to a year until they become financially independent. O’Brien notes that funding for this financial assistance must be drawn from a wide variety of sources, both public and private, including donations.
“There’s a little bit that [evacuees] have when they come through the federal program, but very little––like $1,000 per evacuee. It's not enough to even cover an initial security deposit,” O’Brien said. “It's literally a mosaic of different sources of funds to be able to get them a home, to get the security deposit done, and the first couple of months’ rent before they start working and are able to pay for things themselves.”
Despite the challenges involved, resettlement agencies have helped secure homes for hundreds of Afghan evacuees in Connecticut. IRIS also continues to furnish new homes with furniture, household goods, and toiletries, for which they accept donations year-round.
HEALTHCARE, EDUCATION, AND COMMUNITY WELCOME
New arrivals must also adjust to American healthcare and education systems. Rapid-fire federal legislation passed in fall of 2021 simplified and expanded evacuees’ access to medical treatment by making Afghans on humanitarian parole eligible for Medicaid, as well for federal benefits like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and Section 8 Public Housing. On a local level, IRIS frequently steps in to help connect evacuees with primary medical care.
New Haven is also home to a range of organizations devoted to immigrant and refugee education. For example, Elena’s Light–– founded and headed by Fereshteh Ganjavi, herself a refugee from Afghanistan––provides free in-home English language tutoring to immigrant and refugee women and children, offering special courses on practical subjects like Driver’s License Exam preparation.
IRIS also provides educational services, which include English classes for immigrant adults and backpacks, uniforms, and other supplies for evacuated children attending school. The Connecticut Institute for Refugees and Immigrants (CIRI) engages with evacuee and refugee children, parents, and local educators to promote educational success.
Mayor Elicker described public education as one of a few critical ways that local governments can directly support resettled Afghans.
“A lot of refugees come as a family with children. And we work to integrate children into our public school system, which supports them with language learning, culturally appropriate meals––ensuring that new children feel welcome.”
Elicker then described another way for local governments to support evacuees:
“It’s just very publicly stating our values as a city that welcomes people. And that comes in many different ways. It comes in our vocalization about being against hate and any sort of discrimination. It comes in our words of support for people who reflect the diversity of our city, and enhance the diversity of our city.”
Elicker reiterated the importance of welcoming evacuated Afghan citizens to New Haven:
“In a place like Afghanistan, where so many people have worked hard with United States military at our request to help support us, for us to then not extend the welcoming hand to as many people as possible, is not only unethical, but it prohibits us from being as successful in future conflicts, because people will see that when they help the United States out, they may not be protected by the United States in the future.”
O’Brien similarly concluded with a comment on the importance of welcoming these evacuees––and of providing them with a path to citizenship:
“It seems only right to provide them the same access to stay here permanently that we would have provided if they'd gone through the refugee process. And that's a path to a green card and citizenship. Not a $10,000 asylum claim that may not be approved.”
In the meantime, resettlement agencies will continue to lend a hand to Afghan evacuees navigating new systems and new challenges in the United States. Readers interested in volunteering with or donating to IRIS, CIRI, or Elena’s Light may find more information about doing so on those organizations’ websites.
Researching for this piece introduced me to a complex web of nonprofit organizations, advocacy groups, and local, state, and federal government entities. I would like to extend my sincerest thanks to Ann O’Brien and to Mayor Justin Elicker for their time and for the information they provided. If I were to write this piece again, I would try harder to interview Afghan evacuees directly, so that I could center the lived experiences of the individuals navigating the systems which this article explores. I encourage readers interested in supporting resettled families to look into volunteer opportunities at IRIS, CIRI, and Elena’s Light, and to contact their representatives about an Afghan Adjustment Act.