America has had countless waves of migrants, but rarely has the country been as eager to receive them as it has for the tens of thousands of Afghans who are being airlifted into the country.
Charities and resettlement agencies say they have been overwhelmed by the response, with offers of open arms, leads on apartments and a flood of supplies.
The desperate airlift out of Kabul had barely kicked into gear last month when a call went out from Adventist Community Services of Greater Washington for items such as shampoo, razors, wall art and alarm clocks — anything that could help a suddenly displaced Afghan family arriving with only what they could carry.
A few days later, Ken Flemmer, the director of the Adventist group, asked folks to halt drop-offs because organizers needed time to process the crush of items.
Mr. Flemmer told The Washington Times that a man arrived from Michigan with a carload of supplies. Pharmacy students from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, brought cartons of personal hygiene products. Volunteers have been working through the heat to sort everything.
In Northern Virginia, Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington posted a wish list of needs on Amazon. Everything was purchased and donated within hours, said Stephen Carattini, president and CEO, but the surge created a bit of a logistical issue.
“We shouldn’t have been surprised, but we had an overwhelming response,” he said. “Our warehouses are full. Our offices have become impromptu sorting sites.”
Polling confirms Americans’ eagerness to step up.
About two-thirds of Americans polled by The Economist/YouGov say the U.S. should give asylum to those who helped U.S. and allied forces and organizations in the 20-year war. Just 14% disagreed. When asked more broadly about Afghans who fled because of violent upheaval in their country, support is narrower, with 47% urging help and 24% opposed to asylum.
That’s still the kind of support Syrian refugees could have only imagined. They arrived during the Obama administration and faced similar questions about vetting. Polling in 2015 found about 60% of Americans were opposed to accepting them as refugees.
Help from the Hill?
Congress will have a chance to express its support in the form of taxpayers’ money.
President Biden on Tuesday requested $6.4 billion in emergency funds to help the resettlement effort as part of a broader package of disaster relief.
According to an analysis by the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a little more than a third of the money is for the vetting, processing and transportation by the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security. There is also money for public benefits and a speedy pathway to citizenship.
Mr. Biden wants to attach the money to a stopgap bill to hike the federal borrowing limit and keep the government open beyond Sept. 30, putting pressure on Congress to accept his terms.
Mr. Flemmer said Afghanistan has been part of America’s psyche for two decades since the 9/11 attacks, and hundreds of thousands of Americans have served or worked there and returned. The heart-rending stories and vivid images from Afghanistan as the hard-line Taliban insurgents consolidate control are nearly impossible to ignore.
“It’s one thing to have to resettle because it’s an option,” he said. “It seems a lot of people felt it was not an option. I just talked to someone just a few minutes ago. She’s here, but her family — they sleep a different place every night. That’s how difficult it is in Kabul.”
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, said many people feel an obligation to help the Afghans in a way that didn’t exist for Syrian or Somali refugees, or for the Central Americans who have streamed across the border in recent years in search of economic opportunity.
That’s partly because of a perception — wrong, he argues — of who has been airlifted.
“The Afghans who managed to get out in our frenzied evacuation effort have been presented to us by politicians and the official media as people who fought with our soldiers (even though no more than a handful fit that description), and so we owe them,” Mr. Krikorian said in an email. “Likewise, I think some people see providing help to Afghans as a way of making up for the disastrous consequences of our nation-building boondoggle.”
He said the country is experiencing a sort of honeymoon period that could fade as people see “how big the cultural gap is between them and American society: child “brides,” polygamy, wife-beating, honor killings and the rest.”
If polling is to be believed, some of the enthusiasm has already waned. Yahoo News said its surveys detected a slip in support among Republicans at the end of August. It called the shift a reflection of “anti-refugee rhetoric by several prominent conservative figures.”
The worries could also have been fueled by new realities.
The Biden administration has kept a tight hold on information about the airlift population but acknowledged that some of those evacuated to third countries for more processing were on U.S. watch lists. The Washington Times reported last week about one Afghan, a convicted rapist who had been deported from the U.S., who reached American soil before he was flagged.
Biden administration officials haven’t indicated how many of those airlifted out of Afghanistan are expected to reach the U.S., though Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said it will probably be more than 50,000. As of late last week, some 20,000 had arrived.
Most are being admitted under Homeland Security’s powers of humanitarian parole. The legal status is less firm than those for refugees or Special Immigrant Visa holders. The Special Immigrant Visas are aimed specifically at helping Afghans who assisted the U.S. war effort.
Most of the arrivals are staying at eight military bases across the country, but a small number have been processed and released or have walked away on their own.
Those who come as Special Immigrant Visa holders or refugees get specific levels of government support, including about three months of housing assistance. By that time, they are expected to have found a job to support themselves, Mr. Carattini said.
It’s not clear what level of government support the parolees will be granted, he said.
Mr. Carattini said that in addition to prayers, his organization is asking for leads on housing and for pro bono professional services such as mental health counseling, medical and dental services, school health screenings and legal assistance for what is likely to be a surge of asylum applications.
Down the road, once the flow of people released into communities goes from a trickle to a stream, he said, Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington will ask parishes to conduct food drives.
Most of those who fled their homes faced traumatic situations and were uprooted quickly. Refugees usually spend years in other countries before they are approved to enter the U.S.
In this case, the speed of the Afghan government collapse meant tens of thousands of people were fleeing with only what they had on them, unsure of anything.
“Here we were watching on the TV flights take off, and then you could look on the same TV screen the next day and watch people coming through Dulles Airport. It was happening in real time,” Mr. Carattini said. “No time to say goodbye. Families being split up. … No idea where you’re going, no idea if you’ll ever be back, no idea if your loved ones will be able to get out.”
Mr. Flemmer said it is critical to sustain the enthusiasm for the new arrivals.
In times of crisis, help rushes in but often dissipates. For the Afghans, the toughest stretch will come in a few months when they try to rebuild normal lives and struggle with figuring out the basics in a new land.
“We can help them in a crisis, we can get and outfit an apartment. [But] you really need a coach. You need someone who can explain to you how does the postal system work, how do you get a driver’s license,” he said.