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Afghan refugees in North Carolina face 'underfunded and overwhelmed' system

Erin Keever
In North Carolina, Mecklenburg County has seen the second-highest number of Afghan refugee arrivals, behind only Guilford County.

After the Taliban took over Afghanistan in the fall of 2021 following the U.S. military withdrawal, thousands of Afghans migrated to the U.S. Many of them, around 3,500, have come to North Carolina in the past two years. And with more than 800Mecklenburg County has seen the second-highest number of arrivals behind only Guilford County. Those new arrivals to the state have faced many challenges because of a resettlement system that is both underfunded and overwhelmed.

Journalist Mehr Sher wrote about it for Carolina Public Press and she joins us now.

Marshall Terry: I thought we could start off with you telling me about someone you profiled extensively in the piece. She’s a young woman who graduated from Kabul University with a degree in business administration who had a successful career in Afghanistan before she came to the U.S. in November of 2021. Now she works as a concierge at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville.

Mehr Sher: Yes, Marshall, I was so fortunate to be connected with Shamaila Shaiq. Shamaila is a 25-year-old young woman. She's of Tajik ethnic background, a minority in Afghanistan, and she was born and raised in Kabul. Shamaila has had a successful career as a business development officer and she's here rebuilding her life in a new country and finding a new path to work towards her goals. She wants to pursue her MBA and hopefully set up an organization that helps support Afghan women in business, back in Afghan.

But she also has certain barriers, Marshall, like she has this lack of access to official documents from her university in Afghanistan. She wants to pursue her MBA, but the documents that are required to be accepted and admitted into U.S. programs are difficult for her to access and submit. She's also working at the Biltmore Estate, as you said, she's working to support not only herself but her family back home and to save for her education.

Terry: So, lay it out for me, if you will. Once an Afghan migrant like Shamaila arrives in North Carolina, what happens next? What does the process look like?

Sher: Typically, an Afghan migrant will come through one of the 15 local resettlement agencies that support refugees and migrants in the state. So in Shamaila’s case, it was through Lutheran Services Carolinas. Now, because there are capacity issues and a lack of adequate funding for resettlement, these agencies may have one case worker or an assigned individual from a resettlement agency who oversees different sorts of needs of a client or migrant and helps them resettle. So these agencies may have one such case worker for dozens of migrants and that can make the process more challenging. And then there are volunteers who would be filling in the gaps that they can to help support newcomers, which originally resettlement agencies were meant to [do].

Now, what resettlement agencies are meant to provide migrants with, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, “Our services that support resettlement, such as integration, self-sufficiency and stability, they help migrants find long term housing, providing them with stipends during the first 90 days, setting them up for benefits such as Medicaid and food stamps, helping them find jobs and also helping them enroll in schools or language programs.” So essentially, any of the services that would be needed for a newcomer in this country to transition to life in the U.S. and to potentially understand complex U.S. systems. Usually, the resettlement program for Afghan migrants is around 90 days, but they can receive additional support for up to five years after their arrival in the United States.

And lastly, many Afghan migrants also entered North Carolina under a temporary legal status. And so through all of this resettling, navigating, and adapting to a new country, they also have to seek legal counsel and figure out how they will seek permanent resident status and citizenship, either here in the U.S. or elsewhere.

Terry: Now, why is this system underfunded, and what's the effect of that? And you've already touched on it a little bit.

Sher: So, to expand on that, in North Carolina, like much of the rest of the U.S., resettlement agencies are underfunded. They are cash-strapped. In 2020, the former Trump administration lowered the cap on accepting refugees to 15,000 people. So, Marshall, the way that resettlement works in the U.S. is that resettlement agencies receive funding based on how many refugees we accept. And so as a result, they became significantly under-resourced and then lacked the capacity to also continue to maintain those strong community connections and networks that are needed.

Then the Biden administration did come in and raise the cap to 62,500 people. And so as a result of that, there has been more allocation of funding. But that being said, the past few years have set back resettlement programs tremendously. During that time, many organizations even have to shut down and also cut down on their capacity, significantly. Typically, resettlement agencies in North Carolina will serve up to 200 new arrivals in a year. But with Afghanistan, there was a unique situation after the evacuation of allies in Afghanistan, some received up to 100 people in three months, and that's a large influx for a cash-strapped agency.

So the effect of all of this is an underfunded resettlement program, which means less access to resources to facilitate the permanent resettlement of migrants and refugees in North Carolina and beyond in the United States.

Terry: What would you say is the biggest obstacle faced by Afghan migrants to North Carolina and the resettlement system here? And what would it take to overcome it?

Sher: So one is, as we spoke about earlier, underfunded resettlement agencies — and so that directly affects the quality of the resources and long-term resettlement of migrants. But then, this is the second major obstacle, I would say, is permanent legal status. We have a backlog to [the] U.S. immigration system and many migrants are in a legal limbo, specifically Afghan migrants who are still awaiting approvals on their asylum cases.

To date, for instance, less than 5,000 of more than 83,000 Afghan migrants in the U.S. have successfully secured permanent legal status. Afghan migrants who entered North Carolina, they came in on humanitarian parole. They have up to two years to apply for permanent status in the country.

And Congress recognized this need for permanent legal status and a backlogged U.S. immigration system. In fact, they enacted a law in the fall of 2021 to expedite the processing of Afghan allies who are seeking asylum. Typically, asylum seekers would have to wait for up to five years to get an interview, but under this law, interviews were required within 45 days.

But through my reporting on this story, Marshall, I've learned that many Afghan asylum seekers did not have the processing of their cases expedited, and so they're still in limbo. And this poses a long-term issue for those migrants who have threats to their lives and their loved ones back home for working with and supporting U.S. forces and organizations during the war.

One solution that many advocates that I've spoken to have pointed to is the Afghan Adjustment Act, which is a bipartisan bill in Congress that could move past these legal obstacles and could be a way to provide legal permanent status to thousands of Afghan migrants in the United States.

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Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.
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