By Mark Pattison
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON — The rise this winter of COVID-19’s omicron variant wiped out a lot of people’s travel plans, including for some of the United States’ most recent arrivals.
Many of those are refugees from Afghanistan, now six months or more removed from their home country, and all they’d ever known, as they fled rather than face a peril-filled future.
Even though Catholic Charities affiliates nationwide have stepped up placement efforts, one issue has stymied them, as it has stymied a lot of Americans of late: where to live.
“Airbnb has relationships with Catholic Charities,” said Christopher Ross, vice president of migration and refugee resettlement services for Catholic Charities USA. “Housing is a huge issue wherever you go in the country.” Home prices have continued to climb during the pandemic.
“These folks who are coming off the (military) bases, essentially, if they’re going to end up in a hotel, it might be an extended-stay hotel,” Ross said during a Catholic Social Ministry Gathering workshop, “Who Is My Neighbor? Welcoming Newcomers from the Margins.” “It might get a little cramped with a family of seven or 10.”
He added, “Hosts clearly understand what the situation is. But in the meantime, we’d like to be able to say, for a week, three weeks, four weeks, a home, a vacation home, a summer home, if you think it might be available — for the reduced rates or regular rates — that’s fine.”
And there you have it: another creative solution to a seemingly intractable problem.
Ross noted there are eight “safe haven” communities at or near Army bases. Catholic Charities has even organized tea times for the adults “to calm their nerves,” he said.
Tea may be the least of their needs. Case management, community support, rapid-response immigration services and lawyers may be higher up the list. “Our agencies are involved in providing more social services care, we’re getting more involved in that,” Ross said. “As they are getting transitioned off the Army bases … we are doing that work as well.”
There’s also the matter of getting refugees’ children registered at schools and helping find jobs for their parents.
“That’s a lot of work to be done for sure, 100,000 people with more to come,” Ross said.
Some Afghan refugees know kin living in the United States and make arrangements with them to settle nearby. Most, though, have to be resettled with people they’ve never met before in towns they’d never heard of.
There are more than 50 such refugees in the Tri-Cities area of southeast Washington state, encompassing the cities of Kennewick, Pasco and Richland, population 303,000 including outlying areas, according to the 2020 census.
Ivone Guillen, who used to work at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops pulling together the annual Catholic Social Ministry Gathering, now works for the Pasco-based Broetje Family Trust as immigration outreach manager, a new initiative she launched in October. She works not only with a six-member team from the trust, but with several other community groups to make the Afghan refugees feel more at home.
“It’s a transition, right? Figuring out what this new way of living means,” Guillen told Catholic News Service in a Feb. 23 phone interview from Pasco. “What’s important are the connections we are building and the relationships we are cultivating.”
COVID-19 still makes it tough to do events in person, Guillen said. “But I think we reach out to trusted community partners and offer ways to connect. Maybe a local event or maybe an online activity. It’s really about having conversations and dialogue.”
She added, “We’re always seeking opportunities to do that in community. One of the ways we can build community is to do it in a way that they feel safe and they have something to contribute to the community.”
Like housing, jobs are key. “I think everyone is at their own stage. The refugee system and the way this group of Afghans has arrived adds additional layers to the process,” Guillen said. “But I think we’re heading in the right direction.”
Nor has there been a lot of negativity expressed about the Afghans’ presence in the region. “We are a historically welcoming and receiving community,” Guillen said. “I think that there’s a really well-coordinated effort among community-based organizations among those that are arriving.”
Another cohort of refugees are those claiming asylum having crossed into the United States from Mexico. They could be from one of a large number of countries hoping to make the United States their home after, like the Afghans, fleeing after facing the specter of political instability, deprivation and threats on their lives or those of their loved ones.
There are humanitarian needs along the border that require community support, said Michelle Sardone, deputy director of programs for the Catholic Legal Immigration Network. “If you are along the border, of course, there are a lot of immediate humanitarian needs,” she added.
There is a wide range of needs for those claiming asylum but in legal limbo of the Migrant Protection Protocols, better known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy, Sardone said.
Under MPP, those who arrive at the southern border and ask for asylum are given notices to appear in immigration court and sent back to Mexico. They are instructed to return to a specific port of entry at a specific date and time for their next court hearing.
“There are thousands of individuals allowed in to the U.S. from all over the country from MPP that are currently in proceedings,” Sardone said. “With immigration court backlogs as bad as they are right now, some could go … as far out as 2024,” she added. “Those that were in MPP previously had waited at the border — anytime for over a year, and some close to two years.”
Sardone said, “But then once those individuals move further into the U.S., needing community support, figuring out when their next immigration court hearing is — or basic humanitarian needs that need to be met immediately,” someone must pick up the slack and “make sure they are getting good immigration advice” ahead of their hearing, regardless of the date, lest they get taken in by someone out to exploit them.