Photographs from 'No Safe Place,' a special report by The Sacramento Bee
Rep. Doris Matsui, reacting to an investigation by The Sacramento Bee, has formally requested that the federal Government Accountability Office evaluate how to improve the resettlement process for Afghan refugees arriving in the United States on Special Immigrant Visas.
The visas are awarded to people who served the U.S. during the war in Afghanistan, along with their immediate family members. California has received more of these newcomers than any other state, and Sacramento – with 2,000 recent arrivals and more on the way – has more than any other county in California.
The Bee series, “No Safe Place,” documented the difficulties they have faced in Sacramento, where they have often been placed in substandard housing infested with bedbugs and roaches. People who worked as translators, engineers and lawyers for the United States in Afghanistan have found they can land little but minimum-wage work here. Some have been the victims of violent crime.
“The promises we made to help them need to be fulfilled,” said Matsui, a Sacramento Democrat whose office has been helping several Afghan SIV families. “After reading your stories and listening to some of the families we’ve encountered, there’s great concern with the resettlement process. It needs to be looked at and improved.”
Matsui has also joined a bipartisan group of lawmakers working to extend the Special Immigrant Visa program for Afghans. It is set to expire at the end of this year, leaving thousands of Afghans who worked with U.S. forces in limbo and at risk of retaliation from the Taliban. One Afghan is killed every 36 hours due to his or her affiliation with the United States, according to the International Refugee Assistance Project.
Matsui said a neutral agency such as the GAO is best equipped to examine the resettlement process and whether the money allocated by the State Department – $1,125 per person – is adequate.
“The resettlement process should be more specific for this population, both during the 90 days that resettlement agencies are assigned to help them, and after the 90 days are over,” she said. “There must be a way to help them transition to what they really want – to work here and provide for their families.”
“Their hopes and dreams have often not been fulfilled.” Matsui said. She said she would like to find a way to put refugees with advanced degrees “on a pathway to practice their professions.”
The Bee is hosting a forum Wednesday called “No Safe Place: A Community Conversation” at the California Museum in an effort to discuss solutions to the Afghans’ plight. Matsui’s district director, Sam Stefanki, will be there.
Matsui told The Bee she envisions a team of “navigators” who possess the skills to help the newcomers enter the workforce or job training programs, from those with medical degrees to women who under the Taliban were forbidden to go to school or drive.
“It’s not easy to find a job, especially for someone who is foreign to this country and doesn’t understand the culture but really wants to be a part of the community,” she said. “If women want to work, where do they get child care? If they need a higher level of (English as a Second Language) training, let’s help them do that.
“If we don’t do that, we’re going to have people who come to this country with great hopes who get stuck in substandard housing without having a sense of optimism or hope to try and figure out what their next step is.”
The housing problem is something that must be addressed by multiple agencies, including at the state and county, with the assistance of the nonprofit refugee agencies charged with resettling Special Immigrant Visa holders, Matsui said. She said the refugee agencies are “pretty much overwhelmed and doing the best they can,” given that the federal government gives them just 90 days to provide services to new arrivals. She said the city and county of Sacramento have to better inspect properties to make sure they are free of vermin and have functioning appliances.
Sacramento’s refugee resettlement agencies said this week they welcome a GAO evaluation and any efforts by local, state and federal governments to help improve services and increase resources for Sacramento’s growing refugee population.
“I think it’s wonderful and necessary,” said Genevieve Levy, director of family services for the refugee resettlement program run by Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services. “All the agencies do an excellent job given the funding we’ve been provided, but the SIVs and other refugees need more than the minimum amount of `welcome money’ that’s given them.”
Kirt Lewis, director of the Sacramento Office of World Relief – which in fiscal year 2016 will resettle 1,300 refugees, 50 percent from Afghanistan – praised Matsui’s leadership “in helping convene the right voices to improve the refugee experience so we can make Sacramento as welcoming a city as possible.”
Lewis said the need is growing, as Sacramento is also turning out to be a major destination of choice for Syrian refugees now in the pipeline to come to the United States.
Lewis said he thinks government agencies and nonprofits can join forces to provide transitional housing offering a variety of services in safe neighborhoods for several weeks before newcomers are placed in apartments. “It could be anywhere from a host home belonging to empty-nesters to a vacant home – we found one for an Afghan family of nine,” he said.
Lewis also suggested designating an apartment complex that could serve as a one-stop shop for several weeks, offering everything from job placement to educational services. When he visited Vancouver, Canada, Lewis toured a government-sponsored complex where newcomers meet service providers, law enforcement and other public and nonprofit agencies to help them.
Deborah Ortiz, CEO of Opening Doors, another refugee resettlement agency, suggested the California Legislative Analyst’s Office also do a report on how the state can enhance its refugee services.
Matsui, a Democrat, has joined 26 other members of the U.S. House of Representatives in pushing to extend the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa Program, which is set to expire in December. The Senate has already voted to extend the program for one year and provide additional visas.
If the program is not renewed, “People are going to die,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told the Senate.
Since the beginning of fiscal year 2014, the U.S. government has provided more than 23,000 special immigrant visas to Afghan applicants and their families, according to the State Department.
Afghan war veteran Matt Zeller, whose organization, No One Left Behind, assists former Afghan translators, estimates that the backlog of SIV applicants totals around 35,000, including those whose applications have yet to enter the process, which often takes a year or more to complete.
Matsui said the program needs to be extended to provide at least 4,000 additional visas, especially in light of fact the Afghan conflict isn’t over.
“We owe them,” she said.