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These immigrants risked their lives for U.S. forces. How are we paying them back?

Afghan allies from war on terror struggle to find the American dream

The State Department offers Special Immigrant Visas to Afghans who risked their lives translating and providing other services to U.S. and allied forces during the war on terror. Sacramento's ethnic diversity and mild climate have made it a magnet
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The State Department offers Special Immigrant Visas to Afghans who risked their lives translating and providing other services to U.S. and allied forces during the war on terror. Sacramento's ethnic diversity and mild climate have made it a magnet

Afghan and Iraqi refugees who received Special Immigrant Visas after risking their lives serving alongside U.S. troops need more help finding skilled jobs and decent affordable housing, the federal Government Accountability Office said in an audit released Thursday.

These visas apply not only to people who helped the U.S. military during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but to their immediate family members as well. The GAO said that since 2008, about 20,000 SIV recipients and 40,000 immediate family members have been resettled across the U.S., with large concentrations in Sacramento, Dallas-Fort Worth and Arlington, Texas, and Falls Church, Va.

In its audit, the GAO found that 56 percent of Afghan SIV holders and 70 percent of Iraqi SIV holders were unemployed three months after arrival in the U.S., even though about 90 percent of Afghans and 80 percent of Iraqis had completed at least high school and spoke English well.

Many SIV holders have advanced degrees, the report said, however, they only can secure employment driving for Lyft or Uber, assembling cellphones, working at fast-food restaurants or in other relatively low-skilled jobs.

Providing them with more upfront information about jobs and housing costs across the U.S. “can at least help them make decisions that better align their personal situation with the economic realities of resettlement in the United States," the report stated.

The report also said that a lack of longer-term data regarding SIV holders in the U.S. also is an issue. “After their resettlement ... no outcome information exists beyond whether SIV holders are minimally self-sufficient within the first six months," it said.

California has received more SIV newcomers than any other state, and Sacramento – with more than 2,000 arrivals – has more than any other county in California.

Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, in response to a 2016 investigation of SIV holders by The Sacramento Bee, had requested the GAO to evaluate how to improve the resettlement process for Afghan refugees arriving in the United States on the visas.

“SIV holders helped service members defend our country abroad, and I believe it is our duty to ensure we help them build their lives here in the United States,” Matsui said in a statement Thursday. “This report clearly indicates that we have more work to do, particularly in collecting additional data on the resettlement process so we can improve long term outcomes."

"I also believe, based on the experiences of those in Sacramento, that we need to strengthen the employment and housing resources we offer SIV holders," she continued. "There is a role that Congress can play in ensuring these families have the help they need, and I look forward to continuing to work with my colleagues on legislative options to do so.”

The Bee series, called “No Safe Place,” documented the difficulties some SIV holders have faced in Sacramento, where they often were placed in housing infested with bedbugs and roaches. People who worked as translators, engineers, doctors and lawyers for the U.S. in Afghanistan have found they can land little but minimum-wage work. Some have been the victims of violent crimes.

Matsui said she envisions building a team of “navigators” who possess the skills needed to help the newcomers enter the workforce or job training programs. She said she would like to find a way to put refugees with advanced degrees on a pathway to practice their professions. “Their hopes and dreams have often not been fulfilled,” she said.

Some changes already have been made to help SIV holders transition to their new country. The State Department, for example, no longer resettles Afghan and Iraqi SIVs recipients in Sacramento because of the low income housing shortage, unless they have friends or relatives already here to help.

In response to the frustrations SIV holders face in the U.S., the GAO reported that in June 2017, the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement offered a new $3 million competitive grant, The Refugee Career Pathways Program, to “assist refugees to begin professional careers that provide not only a salary but also greater job security and the possibility of career employment.“

The State Department responded to the new report by saying it has developed better upfront information on the realities of the resettlement process “as well as life in the United States.” Health and Human Services said it will “explore ways to capture information, including employment outcomes, about SIVs."

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