The U.S. needs to prepare for more refugees. Our Afghan experience has shown us what we can do better
More than a month after Russia invaded Ukraine, President Biden pledged that the United States will accept 100,000 Ukrainian refugees.
It’s the right thing for our nation to do–both to offer a home to those in need and to shoulder our share of global responsibility for the millions of displaced people who are flooding into Europe.
We must be prepared. That means taking a hard look at our resettlement capabilities. We are already facing a steep learning curve in coordinating the arrival of 76,000 Afghans across America. As we rise to meet this challenge, we are laying the groundwork to receive future refugees—not only from Ukraine, but from other war-torn nations around the globe.
Americans support it
My state has made championing refugees a priority. It’s part of our historical legacy. My own great-great-great grandparents found refuge in Utah after fleeing religious persecution more than 150 years ago.
But as our national response has proven, the decency and humanity we’ve shown this latest wave of arrivals aren’t unique to Utah. A poll by APM Research Lab found that four in five Americans support helping Afghans who assisted U.S. troops during military conflict, and 68% would be willing to donate to, or directly assist local resettlement efforts.
In fact, Americans everywhere have greeted our nation’s newest residents at airports with flowers, helped furnish their homes, and delivered meals. But over time, they’ll need help learning English, finding jobs, navigating cultural barriers, and healing from trauma. If we can muster the right blend of governmental will and American altruism, we’ll ensure better outcomes for all newcomers, those who are here now and those who will soon follow.
Historically, refugees acclimate well to their new lives in the United States. They are dedicated employees, start businesses at high rates, and are more likely than other groups to apply for citizenship, according to the American Immigration Council. But their odds of a smooth adjustment depend greatly on how we—as government, community, business leaders, and caring individuals—support them in their transition to become residents and eventually Americans.
Here are some strategies we’ve found helpful in Utah that I hope others can follow:
Establish a Refugee Services Office
We launched one in Utah 11 years ago, and the existing infrastructure has allowed us to serve refugees for years beyond initial resettlement. Our office includes the Utah Refugee Center, a unique gathering place for refugees. The Center’s mission is two-fold: to help refugees access family-sustaining employment and become integrated into the local community.
The office coordinates agencies and organizations that serve refugees statewide and offers critical resources, including employment assistance, English, health, and mental health services. The office also offers training in higher-paying jobs—especially in industries facing labor shortages, like health care, pharmacy, and construction—and matches them with employers at the end of the course.
In Utah, refugee work is embedded in our Department of Workforce Services, which allows us to provide more robust and long-term support for refugees. It’s important for states to take the leadership role in how they serve refugees and understand the long game—that refugees need support beyond initial resettlement. Perhaps they can create an extension of the Office of New Americans, which many cities and states already have.
By dedicating resources specifically to refugees, states send a strong message about the importance of giving our most vulnerable newcomers a vital boost.
Enlist the local business community
National corporations have offered airline miles to transport Afghans from American military bases to their new cities, but states shouldn’t forget the businesses in their own backyards, like Utah-based Overstock, which donated new tables and chairs to Afghan arrivals. We saw so many other businesses and organizations in our state generously give money and goods to help the resettlement process.
Companies—in addition to generous individuals—were important donors to our statewide Afghan Community Fund, which collected $1.2 million to supplement federal funding. Utah’s business community and philanthropists have also launched a new fundraising effort to aid Ukrainian refugees.
It’s not just about what companies can donate–it’s about the people they can hire
Refugees are already vital to industries like health care and food processing. Large numbers were essential workers during the pandemic. Studies show they are loyal workers, even in industries with high turnover rates.
Working with our Refugee Services Office, Intermountain Healthcare and the University of Utah have trained refugees in fields like phlebotomy and pharmacy tech, hiring many into critical healthcare jobs.
Every state has businesses facing worker shortages. Municipalities can be a conduit between refugees looking for work and companies in need or hold job fairs specifically for refugees, based on the unique talents and skills they bring. In some states, there are organizations, such as Amplio Recruiting and Upwardly Global, that help facilitate these connections.
Encourage neighbors to lend a hand
Ordinary citizens have already done so much by “adopting” families and collecting donations. Now we need volunteers who can tutor English, help families navigate their local services, and decipher transit maps.
These small acts go a long way. Invite your new neighbors to dinner. Help them plant spring gardens. Include them in community picnics or walking groups. A coalition of national and local nonprofits known as Welcome.US recently created a portal to connect volunteers to the organizations that need their help. It’s a truly bipartisan effort, co-chaired by the Obamas, Bushes, and Clintons.
There’s also an important role for professionals to play in offering mental health counseling and legal services pro bono. For example, the Immigration Justice Campaign that’s organized by several immigration nonprofit organizations, trains lawyers, including those new to immigration law, to assist asylum seekers with their casework.
This is an important time to summon America’s collective goodwill and shape it into compassionate policies and kind acts of service.
There are and will be challenges
Even with goodwill and business support, coupled with strong leadership for the state’s refugee program and seasoned resettlement partners, recent Afghan arrivals came to the U.S. at a rate and pace that far surpassed what happens during the normal resettlement process.
Finding and securing housing was difficult. Our system was strained by so many unknowns, including exactly when refugees would be arriving in the state. We had to find innovative solutions to meet urgent new demands. But the efforts were worth it.
Today’s Afghan evacuees–and the refugees from other countries, including future arrivals from Ukraine–are eager to become part of our communities. Let’s build on the lessons we’ve learned and the new solutions we’ve created to roll out the welcome wagon nationwide.
Spencer J. Cox is the governor of Utah.
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