Why are some Southern states taking so few Afghan refugees?

In the coming weeks, almost 40,000 Afghans, who escaped the tyranny of the Taliban, will be settled in the U.S., with California and Texas taking about a quarter, the others going to other parts of the country. 

In the South, where state leaders have often railed against immigrants and refugees, some states are also taking a sizable number of Afghans: North Carolina, Virginia, Georgia and Florida will each take more than 1,000 refugees. 

Still other Southern states are not opening their arms widely. Alabama and Mississippi will receive just 10 Afghans each. Arkansas and Louisiana will take 98 and 59, respectively. 

By the end of this month, an additional 30,000 Afghans will be welcomed and then assigned to a state. The White House aims to resettle 100,000 Afghans by September 2022.  

So how does the federal government decide where to send refugees? How do states decide how many refugees to accept? 

Some states rely on religious groups to run their refugee resettlement programs, with minimal state oversight. Other states run the programs with assistance from religious groups, and other states run public-private partnerships. In every case, the federal government covers the cost of running the programs.

Most of the Afghans will come to the U.S. using what’s known as a Special Immigration Visa, which means they aren’t technically refugees. But because of the speed and urgency of their admission to the U.S., they are in effect refugees in the eyes of the resettlement agencies. But unless Congress acts, they won’t be eligible for any of the benefits refugees are entitled to, such as SNAP, cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Medicaid or other traditional refugee services.

So why are those numbers so much smaller in some Southern states.

In short, it’s about capacity. But in recent years politics has played a part as well.

To determine where Afghans will be relocated, the State Department works with nine resettlement agencies and more than 200 affiliates across the country, as well as with State Refugee Coordinators, to assess capacity, according to an email from the Executive office of the President.

But from the bottom up, the decisions are made in communities.

“When I heard that Afghan refugees were coming to our country, I asked my staff and my department to look at our resources and our capacity to handle refugees right now, especially given that Hurricane Ida just passed,” said David Aguillard, the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge. 

“So we determined that we could probably handle 10 to 12 families. To get to that number, we have to check with our housing partners about what’s available, if there are jobs available in our community, and we always have to consider what the refugee wants. A few weeks later, we were notified that we were going to get about 49 individuals, which equates to 10 or 12 families.”

New Orleans will take a further 10 Afghans in addition to the 49 going to Baton Rouge.

Between 2011 and 2017, Alabama took on average about 100 refugees a year, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service. During that period, Mississippi took 54 refugees in total. Arkansas took under 100 and Louisiana took over 1,000. Since then, the numbers taken in have plummeted. 

Officials from state refugee services and associated religious groups in Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi did not respond to Reckon’s request for comment. 

Georgia’s Department of Human Services, which also works with Catholic charities, told Reckon that the department makes a number of considerations before accepting refugees, including whether the refugee has a family member living in Georgia, the state’s ability to meet the basic needs of the refugee, what financial resources are available and the provision of ongoing services.

Those services, which include health, education and general community support, is where it gets kind of political.

While the admission of refugees has generally declined since the country allowed over 200,000 to come in 1980, the number has drastically plummeted in recent years, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington D.C.-based think tank.

The annual ceiling for 2020, which would have been decided in Oct. 2019 by the President in consultation with Congress, was 18,000 refugees. Just under 12,000 were accepted by the end of the year. 

There’s a number of reasons for that decline. 

The low number was in line with President Donald Trump’s anti-refugee rhetoric, which was a constant presence throughout his time in office, contributing to record low numbers of refugees being admitted to the country. 

Years before, in November 2015, dozens of states refused to accept Syrian refugees, fearing the same terror attacks that had occurred in Paris that month. While states can’t legally refuse refugees, they did withdraw funds and pass laws prohibiting in-state refugee agencies from helping.

The combination of Trump and the states’ declaration saw refugee group funds dry up, which subsequently contributed to layoffs and the shrinking or cancellation of certain programs.  

That has led to reduced refugee capacity and one reason why some Southern states simply haven’t been able to accommodate more Afghans. But Jeri Stroade, the executive director of Dwell Mobile, a Mobile-based group that helps refugees integrate into the community, believes more can be done.

“There is a political element to it,” she said. “In California, they’re not shutting down their refugee program, because the government values it enough to keep it going. That’s not true everywhere. But it’s also not the fault of the agencies. Those people are doing everything they can to welcome people with fewer staff.”

“The funding just isn’t there anymore,” she added.

The Reckon Report.
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