Damakant Jayshi

With the U.S. government intending to empty military bases of evacuees by February, resettlement agencies are under pressure to accelerate the process of resettling Afghan refugees, parolees and immigrants in communities across the county, including Wausau.

Starting with the resettlement of about 10 Afghans in Wausau by the end of the year, the Ethiopian Community Development Council, Inc. (ECDC), one of the nine national resettlement agencies involved in the process, is racing against the clock to resettle a total of 75 Afghans by March, according to Adam VanNoord, the director of the Multicultural Community Center, the ECDC’s local branch in Wausau.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told Congress last month that though the U.S. government has not provided a firm deadline for each of the bases, the Biden administration aims to complete the resettlement operation between December and February.

Each week Afghan evacuees have been leaving military bases in the United States – their temporary home since August after the fall of Kabul – to resettle in communities across the country. One such temporary shelter, at Fort Lee in Virginia, was shut down last month. Seven bases still have thousands of Afghans waiting to be resettled elsewhere.

The State Department, meanwhile, has asked the resettlement agencies to accelerate the resettlement of Afghans by February 15, a deadline which the ECDC considers “a bit arbitrary” but is trying, nonetheless, to meet. Responding to a question from Wausau Pilot & Review, a State Department spokesperson neither acknowledged nor denied issuing the deadline in either of the two responses the department sent by email.

“We do not publicly comment on internal discussions with resettlement agency and affiliate partners,” a State Department spokesperson said, after Wausau Pilot & Review complained about their non-response. “We are streamlining resettlement as quickly, safely and successfully as possible to help these individuals and families start their new lives in the United States.”

In an earlier statement, the spokesperson acknowledged the pressure the accelerated timeline has placed on the resettlement agencies.

“Resettlement agencies are working around the clock, every day of the week, to serve the largest number of new arrivals at one time in over 50 years, in a very short period of time.”

ECDC’s VanNoord told Wausau Pilot & Review that the Multicultural Community Center has nearly completed the logistics and arrangement to begin resettling 75 evacuees in Wausau before the end of the 2022 fiscal year, with the first arrivals happening by the end of the year.

The arrivals will occur each week once the first of the cases are successfully resettled and the organization has had time to refine the case management process, said VanNoord, adding that the process of hiring support staff, like case managers and a co-sponsorship coordinator, is nearly complete and he expects them to start working soon. The office is still looking for a finance manager and until the person is hired, ECDC’s national office in Arlington will assist.

“We are in the process of procuring a transitional living home to house about 15 people,” he said in the interview. “It’s a transitional arrangement until we have long-term affordable housing. Transitional housing will have common dining and living spaces but private, secure bedroom and bathroom for each family housed there.” Funding for housing has been secured.

ECDC expects to receive and resettle around 18-20 households. The agency’s local partner in Wausau, New Beginnings for Refugees, has been collecting necessary materials for these households.

According to U.S. government officials, those arriving in the United States are a mix of American citizens, lawful permanent residents, Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) holders, SIV applicants, those who worked directly with the U.S. on its mission in Afghanistan and their families, and other vulnerable Afghans.

Their screening and vetting, which began overseas and has continued in the U.S., involves biometric and biographic screenings conducted by intelligence, law enforcement, counterterrorism professionals.

Afghans who have been granted parole under the Afghan Placement and Assistance Program (APA) receive State Department-funded assistance through the nine resettlement agencies. The parolees will have two years to apply for change of status to asylee, per VanNoord.

Damakant Jayshi is a reporter for Wausau Pilot & Review. He is also a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of GroundTruth Project that places journalists into local newsrooms. Reach him at damakant@wausaupilotandreview.com.