What's Next For The Afghans Now In The United States? : The NPR Politics Podcast Tens of thousands of Afghans have been brought to the United States but most have not yet been resettled in communities. The process is complex, with multiple visa categories and gutted resettlement infrastructure all making the challenge more daunting for the Biden administration.

This episode: demographics and culture correspondent Danielle Kurtzleben, White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez, and correspondent Deb Amos.

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What's Next For The Afghans Now In The United States?

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GARRETT: Hi. This is Garrett (ph). I'm riding a recumbent bicycle around the Faroe Islands. And to keep track of what's going on back home, I listen to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST, which is what you're hearing now. This episode was recorded at...


2:10 p.m. on October 7, 2021.

GARRETT: Things may have changed since the recording of the episode, but I'll still be out here in 70-mile-an-hour winds getting very weird looks from the locals. All right. Here's the show.



KURTZLEBEN: Franco, quick. Off the top of your head, do you know where the Faroe Islands are?

ORDOÑEZ: I was worried you would ask me some kind of question like that. I do...

KURTZLEBEN: Oh, no. (Laughter).

ORDOÑEZ: ...Not. But it sounds beautiful and a little bit of scary on a bike ride.

KURTZLEBEN: Good for Garrett, man.

ORDOÑEZ: Good for Garrett.

KURTZLEBEN: All right. Hello. It is the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover demographics and culture.

ORDOÑEZ: And I'm Franco Ordoñez. I cover the White House.

KURTZLEBEN: And also, we have a special guest today, NPR correspondent Deb Amos. Hey, Deb.


KURTZLEBEN: And today we are talking about the process of resettling Afghan refugees in the United States. That process has begun with tens of thousands of Afghan refugees being housed at U.S. military bases around the country. So today we're going to talk about how they might be resettled in the U.S. And let's start with you, Franco. You have been reporting on this. You just interviewed former Delaware Governor Jack Markell, who is in charge of that resettlement. Let's start with the basics. What is his role in all of this?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, I mean, there are, like, so many different parts to this. It is sometimes hard to keep track of. What Markell does is he's in charge of basically what happens next - that transition that the Afghans will take from life on the bases into the communities across the country where they will be living.

KURTZLEBEN: How unusual is what the U.S. is trying to do right now?

ORDOÑEZ: It's a huge lift. I mean, we're talking tens of thousands of people arriving in the United States. This is actually the biggest resettlement of war evacuees since the Vietnam War. Markell told me the latest numbers.

JACK MARKELL: This is a big job. It's a lot of people. It's, you know, 53,000 people right now on the U.S. military bases - another 14,000 or so arriving in the next week. And making sure that they all get resettled well in 200 different communities is a big effort.

ORDOÑEZ: And that's not all that are arriving. You know, the United States is expecting another 30,000 or so to arrive over the course of the next year. So I mean, you can just imagine the challenges of finding them housing, schools, jobs, and the legal challenges of all the necessary documentation and the different kinds of documentation, depending on what status they have, and, you know, what status they're hoping to get. It's huge.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, and speaking of that coordination, I wanted to follow up on that. I mean, how many different types of people do you need to involve in that? It sounds like lawyers. It sounds like...

AMOS: (Laughter).

KURTZLEBEN: ...You might have volunteers like...

AMOS: Not so much lawyers, surprisingly, because everybody does know...


AMOS: Everybody knows what the law is. But what you need and what we've seen since 1980 when this refugee program was passed out of Congress is there's nine resettlement agencies in the country. And they're very skilled at figuring out how to get inexpensive housing because you only get money that lasts you for the first three months that you're here if you are a refugee, and then you have to be working. And so you have to have people who are skilled at this.

In the four years of the Trump administration, all of these nine resettlement agencies shrunk simply because the numbers of resettlement shrunk. And so they are busily trying to hire people who know where the apartments are and where the jobs are and where the schools are and where the buses are. And that takes a lot of work.

KURTZLEBEN: Gotcha (ph). Well, we just talked about those logistical challenges. Let's talk about the political difficulties, especially the coordination with governors. Franco, you've reported some on this. How do they play - even play into this process? And do we know how cooperative everyone is going to be?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, I mean, I think that is a, you know, a big question. I mean, we don't necessarily know how cooperative they will be. At this point, though, they've been, so far, very cooperative. I mean, I spoke with Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson. He's actually the chair of the National Governors Association. And he, you know, basically said that it's critical that, you know, not only his state, but, you know, states across the country welcome these Afghan allies who helped the United States and stood by American troops throughout the 20 years. But he said a big question that he and other governors have is about security and the vetting process.

Back in 2015, there was a lot of support for the last big group of refugees that were coming to the United States from Syria, and that quickly changed because of a terror attack in Paris that set off a lot of discussion and a lot of concern about vetting and whether ISIS terrorists could pose as refugees.

KURTZLEBEN: At the beginning of last month in an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, that poll showed that more than 7 in 10 Americans supported resettling Afghans who supported the U.S. government. Now, it sounds like what you're saying is those political winds can not only shift with time but shift quickly. So, Deb, what do you think could shift them, or could it really just be anything?

AMOS: Well, here's - you know, look. I teach immigration to young journalists. And I spent years asking myself, what is it that makes Americans not like refugees? Is it because of the economy, or is it about jobs? And I spent a long time asking this question. And the answer I got over and over again is it's a question of leadership. So it depends on what the president says about them. By and large, Americans support resettling refugees, and they have since 1980. It's been a bipartisan program. But in the last four years, we saw that it wasn't, that the Trump administration demonized refugees, demonized immigrants, and it turned the tide of politics. It's the only explanation for why it's jumped back so quickly.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, after 2015, you know, just the partisanship just got so sharp. And actually, Markell, who, you know, he was actually a big part of that at that time. He was governor of Delaware, and he was one of the few governors who are actually speaking out in favor of welcoming refugees. I actually asked him about that during our interview.

Are you concerned at all about divisions about refugees like we saw in 2015? I mean, you have President Trump, former President Trump, has already spoken about that, and you have his - some of his supporters. Is that a concern?

MARKELL: This is not political. I mean, this is a fundamental value of the United States. This is our story - a story of immigrants, a story of refugees. So this is not blue. This is not red. This is just who we are. And I really do believe, based on conversations I've had with Democratic governors, Republican governors, Democratic and Republican mayors, that this is a commonly shared value.

ORDOÑEZ: I'll just add that as of now and as that poll that you mentioned showed, I mean, I think the support - it's higher than it has been in many years in the past. But, you know, we are living in very divided times. And we'll see if that unity about Afghan refugees holds.

ORDOÑEZ: All right. We have a lot more to talk about, but we're going to take a quick break. And we will talk more about Afghan refugee resettlement when we get back.


KURTZLEBEN: And we are back. Now, we have been talking about the politics, the logistics of refugee resettlement in the U.S. But, of course, human lives are in the balance here and I want to drill down into that. So, Franco, let's start with you. I'm curious what you have heard from Afghans who are waiting on this process to continue. What are they saying?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, I have not spoken to too many families, but I did speak to one who barely escaped Kabul in the last couple of weeks after first being turned away by gunfire. And they explained a very scary race to the airport. They only had 30 minutes to get there to get on a flight. You know, and they're now at Fort Dix in New Jersey, where they've been for the last few weeks, just kind of wondering what's going to come next.

I spoke with their son, Ahmed Sardawi (ph). He told me, and he told Markell that he just wanted a chance to study. He wanted an opportunity to contribute. He's hoping to take computer science classes. And, you know, at the same time, you know, they feel very lucky that they were able to get out of Afghanistan. But they're also very sad to leave their country, but also very scared and, frankly, also frustrated because they've been on the base for so long.

And there's a lot of uncertainty about when they'll be able to get off and where their next step will be going. They told me that they could go to Virginia, they could go to Maryland, and they could go to California. I mean, living with that kind of uncertainty must be hard.

AMOS: Yeah. I spoke to two young women who are at Fort McCoy, and that's exactly what happened to them. They just ran to the airport. Essentially, they had, you know, their backpack. And they got on the plane. And now they're at Fort McCoy. And they're on humanitarian parole visas, which means they really don't know anything. They have no way to get a green card, no way to go to work.

And it is a visa that you give when you want to quickly protect somebody, to get them out of where they are and bring them to safety. It has no benefits. It only lasts for two years. And then you either have to move through asylum or you have to go home. They came with nothing. I said, can I send you, I don't know, a brush, some lipstick, some - I don't know - something? And they said, we don't have an address. We don't have an address yet.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. Well, that gets at a thing that I've been wondering through this conversation that you touched on earlier, how much support, economic or otherwise, do these refugees get once they get here?

AMOS: It depends on what status you're in. So if you're a refugee, it's pretty much laid out. You get, you know, somewhere around $1,200 for the first three months. Your rent is paid for the first three months, but then you have to be working, and then it's on you. If you're an asylum-seeker, the way that the Trump administration did it is you can't work for a year. So it's very hard to be an asylum-seeker and survive here. If you are - if you came here on humanitarian parole, you have no benefits whatsoever. You are just safe. That's all that provides for you. And you have to figure it out.

Do you get in the line for asylum? You can't get in line anymore for refugees because you're here. So asylum is going to be your path, your legal path unless they change the rules and they might. There's been some talk about changing the rules on benefits for those who came on humanitarian parole, because if you don't, it's unclear how these people are going to survive.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, I want to end this conversation then by talking about that broader system that you both are referencing there. So Biden was criticized last year over his refugee cap, like we talked about. He raised it much more slowly than a lot of people in the Democratic Party wanted. Now he's raised a cap in a huge way from the 15,000 that Trump had last set, ultimately landing on 125,000 for this fiscal year. But I imagine raising the cap isn't the only thing that needs to be done to get all of these people in the door. I mean, we've talked about that as well. So it sounds like you're saying the system isn't quite ready for that. Do we know how long it is going to take to get all of these people resettled?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, it's going to take a long time. I mean, the Afghan evacuees that came in are going to be different than that 125,000 cap, but they are being resettled under the same system. And it was a historic low this year that were actually resettled. While the president did raise the cap to a 125,000, the number of actual refugees that were able to come in and be resettled was very, very small, just a fraction of that. And that is a big concern of refugee groups and former officials who work in this area who feel like a lot more needs to be done.

You add to that, you know, we've been - the United States has been dealing with crisis after crisis. Earlier this year, you had all the unaccompanied children who came to the border. The United States and the Biden administration were really struggling to find shelter for those young people to stay in, then the families arriving. Record numbers of migrants from Central America primarily. Then you have the Afghan refugee crisis. As one expert once told me, you're stealing from Peter to pay Paul because you're having to grab from all these areas of the government to try to solve these issues when they just do not have the resources, the people and the capacity to do at all.

AMOS: It may be that the United States gets something positive out of the situation, and I'm talking about restructuring the refugee resettlement program. You have so many groups who are working with Afghans, and they've popped up out of nowhere across the country. You have enormous welcomings already happening because there are some people being resettled. Maybe we get a full-blown private resettlement system out of this if we can show - if Americans can show that it works in the way that Canadians have been able to show that it works. Yes, it is chaos now. And boy, the numbers certainly are chaotic. But, you know, a year from now, perhaps we will see a new kind of refugee resettlement project.

KURTZLEBEN: All right. Well, we're going to have to leave it there for now. But, Deb, thank you so much. This has been great.

AMOS: Thank you.

KURTZLEBEN: I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover demographics and culture,

ORDOÑEZ: And I'm Franco Ordoñez. I cover the White House.

KURTZLEBEN: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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