More Afghan evacuees are leaving their temporary living quarters on American military bases for new homes in Philadelphia, and the pace of that resettlement is expected to increase over the coming weeks.
It’s being spurred by new money from Congress, expedited processing of work authorizations, and encouragement from government and nonprofit leaders to move more people off the bases more quickly.
“We’ve been told we’re about to experience a surge,” said Margaret O’Sullivan, executive director of Nationalities Service Center, a major Philadelphia resettlement agency.
New figures show NSC has resettled 86 people, with an additional 23 expected to be in new homes by Friday, and HIAS Pennsylvania, the city’s other large immigrant-service agency, has resettled about 35.
That total of about 140 people is up from roughly 46 at the start of October, with more Afghans scheduled to be resettled soon.
At the same time, the total number of Afghan evacuees who’ll stay permanently in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania has increased in the last week.
In Philadelphia, Bethany Christian Services will resettle 25; Catholic Charities, 75; and HIAS Pennsylvania, 100 — and NSC increased its total to 500 from 200, raising the overall city figure to 700. The Pennsylvania figure increased to 1,500 from 995, largely because of NSC.
New Jersey intended to resettle 535 Afghans and Delaware 30 as of mid-September. Updated figures were not immediately available for those states.
Philadelphia reached a milestone last week in its role as the nation’s main arrival point for Afghans, as the airport welcomed its 25,000th evacuee. Total arrivals reached 26,432 this week.
Most newcomers are bused to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, while some go to one of seven other military bases around the country. The people being permanently resettled in Philadelphia can come from all over, as the government matches those set to be resettled with the ready housing and services.
A tight and expensive housing market has complicated the efforts to move people to permanent homes, generating frustration among Afghans on the military bases who are eager to start their American lives.
Currently, about 53,000 evacuees live on the military installations, including 11,200 in South Jersey. Roughly half of all the evacuees are under age 18, according to Axios news. About 34% are adult men and 22% adult women.
The current and coming resettlements promise to boost the size of Philadelphia’s Afghan community, which numbers about 700. Most live in Northeast Philadelphia in the Mayfair and Oxford Circle neighborhoods.
Agencies want to resettle newcomers there, so they’ll have help in transitioning to American life, though that’s not always possible, particularly now, as calls to the agencies come faster.
“We’re slammed, we’re totally slammed,” said HIAS Pennsylvania executive director Cathryn Miller-Wilson, who herself recently made two trips to pick up Afghan families, because no other staff was available to go.
HIAS is trying to quickly hire nine people — five to work in resettlement and four in legal services — to help handle the flow of arrivals. Legal support is crucial for Afghans, because most have no formal immigration status, meaning they will likely need to apply for asylum to stay in the country.
HIAS hopes to be able to resettle more than its pledged 100 people after it hires those new workers.
The Biden administration has started a new national program that aims to involve private citizens, allowing them to actively engage in helping Afghan families start new lives in this country. Under an initiative called Sponsor Circles, groups of at least five adults commit to providing at least 90 days of financial and moral support.
The sponsor group must raise at least $2,275 per member of the welcomed family, to pay for necessities like furniture, clothing, and food. It must help secure housing, employment, and English-language instruction, and assist the family in filing paperwork to access public benefits, health care, and schooling.
Some see the Sponsor Circles program, announced last week, as offering the chance for real, meaningful involvement by Americans who want to help. Others question the wisdom of turning over resettlement processes to people who, however well-intentioned, have no experience or expertise.
The sudden arrival of thousands of Afghan evacuees, driven from Kabul amid the Taliban takeover, has strained the nation’s refugee-resettlement apparatus. Many agencies started from weakened positions, after years of dramatic Trump administration cuts to resettlement that caused them to lay off staff, dig into reserve funds, and even end their refugee operations.
Almost everyone here from Afghanistan served the United States in a military, diplomatic, or development capacity, or is the family member of someone who did. Others worked in media, women’s organizations, or humanitarian groups.
Most are here under what’s called “humanitarian parole,” which is not a formal immigration status but merely a permission to enter the country. It provides none of the automatic government assistance that goes to those officially designated as refugees. Nor does it guarantee a path to stay in this country.
Refugee, resettlement, and human-rights groups are calling on Congress to pass an Afghan Adjustment Act that would allow evacuees to apply for lawful permanent residence in the United States. That would put them on par with refugees.
Money to help Afghan arrivals is flowing from Congress, which last month allocated $6.3 billion in a short-term spending bill. Agencies think that money will allow Afghans to receive the same benefits as refugees. That’s given resettlement workers greater confidence in increasing their resettlement numbers.
O’Sullivan noted that Philadelphia shined in its role as the main landing and welcome center for Afghans being flown into the United States. That arrival effort is winding down now, as flights slow to about one a day.
“Now it’s the resettlement agencies’ turn to take the baton,” she said. “I’m proud we’re doing this, but it’s very, very hard work, in such a short period of time.”