Afghan Refugees

Far from Kabul: A step-by-step guide to resettlement

An Afghan policeman looks over the city of Kabul, Afghanistan, in June 2016.
An Afghan policeman looks over the city of Kabul, Afghanistan, in June 2016. The Associated Press

1. Apply: Afghans who can prove they worked alongside U.S. armed forces for at least two years – recently raised from one – are eligible to petition for a Special Immigrant Visa. Requires a letter of recommendation from a commanding officer. Applicants must demonstrate that they face a serious threat of harm because of their work.

2: Interview: The approval process can take six months to a year or more. If approved, the National Visa Center will collect necessary supporting documents translated into English, and schedule an interview for the applicant and his family, including unmarried children under age 21, at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

3. Choose sponsor and destination: Applicant decides whether to join the State Department’s Reception and Placement Program. If he applies for the program, the family will receive plane tickets – to be paid back at $1,300 per family member after he gets a job and earns enough money in the U.S. The family is placed with a refugee resettlement agency to help them upon arrival. The family is promised resettlement benefits for 30-90 days. Applicants can also choose to be sponsored by a relative in the U.S. Either way, they tell U.S. officials where they want to locate.

4. Placement: After passing Department of Homeland Security checks, the family undergoes medical screening. If approved for Special Immigrant Visas, the State Department presents their case along with other newly minted SIV holders to a weekly meeting of nine national resettlement agencies, letting them know the family is coming to California. One of the agencies will take responsibility for the family, including finding relatives.

The Afghan Special Immigrant Visa program will stop accepting new applicants at the end of 2016 unless Congress votes to extend it.

5. Funding: State Department pays the resettlement agency $2,025 per refugee – $900 for case management and $1,125 to be spent on each new arrival to help them get established. That money – referred to by agencies as “welcome money,” is often used for rent, security deposits, furniture, food and utensils.

How that money is spent, and how much cash is left over for the family, is left to the refugee agency to decide. The agency can decide to use $200 of it for the needs of other refugees.

6. Arrival: Afghan SIV holders and their families often arrive at Sacramento International Airport late at night or early in the morning, where they usually are met by a representative from their resettlement agency. They are taken either to a prepared apartment or to temporary housing at the home of a relative or host until their apartment is ready. The new family typically receives a welcome meal and enough groceries to last a couple of days.

3,029Number of Special Immigrant Visas issued to Afghans (not including family members) as of Sept. 30, 2015

7. First day: A caseworker visits the family, gives a brief cultural orientation and distributes some of the “welcome money” – generally between $40 and $150 per person or $30 to $50 per person for families of three or more. How much spending money is determined by each resettlement agency on a case-by-case basis.

8. First 10 days: The caseworker is expected to help the family apply for welfare, including cash assistance, food stamps and Medi-Cal, at the Sacramento County Department of Human Assistance. New refugees not taking care of infants must be enrolled in either English classes or job training and placement programs to keep getting cash assistance, which lasts up to four years. Single refugees without children get a smaller amount of cash assistance for eight months.

10,300Afghans waiting for approval of their Special Immigrant Visas as of Nov. 20, 2015. Doesn’t include family members.

The resettlement caseworker is also responsible for teaching refugees how to apply for Social Security, sign up for utilities, use public transit and find language and job placement classes.

9. First 30 days: Family is expected to enroll children in school and get required immunizations with the help of the resettlement agency. Family will be interviewed by the county Department of Human Assistance for a variety of benefits, including the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition program. They will also receive their Medi-Cal card, which enables them to utilize all clinics that accept Medi-Cal until their specific insurance card for an HMO comes in.

Their resettlement agency caseworker visits again to make sure all their basic needs are taken care of, and gives them the remainder of their initial “welcome money.”

10. Between 30-60 days: Newcomers should have received their Social Security cards and health insurance cards for medical and dental needs, and be enrolled in in ESL classes or employment services. SIV holders can expect to get their green cards in the mail.

11. Six months: SIV holders are expected to start paying back their travel loan for plane tickets in monthly installments.

12. Five years: Family can apply for U.S. citizenship.

7,000Total number of Special Immigrant Visas authorized for Afghans who worked alongside the U.S. (does not include family members)

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