Editorials

The honorable thing to do for Afghan refugees

Afghan refugees Paiwastoon Hussain Khail, center, and Faisal Sediqi, left, were witnesses when a fellow refugee was shot in the face with a flare gun at a Sacramento County apartment complex.
Afghan refugees Paiwastoon Hussain Khail, center, and Faisal Sediqi, left, were witnesses when a fellow refugee was shot in the face with a flare gun at a Sacramento County apartment complex. rbyer@sacbee.com

Congress is about to extend a special visa program for Afghans who helped U.S. forces in that war-torn country. Given the anti-refugee hysteria, preserving that program is a big win for our values.

But the job isn’t done, not even close.

Lawmakers need to improve aid to refugees once they arrive in America so they have a better chance to succeed – a problem that is distressingly obvious from their plight in Sacramento County.

More than 2,000 have settled here since October 2010, the most of any California county. Despite the efforts of government and private agencies and fellow refugees, too many are living in dangerous and decrepit apartments, as spotlighted in “No Safe Place,” an award-winning special section published in The Sacramento Bee in June.

A Defense Department bill, passed by the House on Friday and before the Senate this week, would extend the Special Immigrant Visa program through 2020 and authorize 1,500 visas in 2017. While that falls short of the waiting list of 10,000, in this poisonous political atmosphere, it’s progress.

The provisions in the bill, however, do not address aid for Afghan refugees. Now, the State Department gives local resettlement agencies $2,025 for each refugee for rent, furniture and food and 90 days of case management. Those amounts don’t appear to be enough.

In response to the Bee report, Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, asked the Government Accountability Office to look at ways to improve the resettlement process. Matsui is working closely with Rep. Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat who authored the 2008 special visa law.

The GAO study has begun. Once it’s complete, Congress ought to give any recommendations serious consideration to make the program as strong as possible.

This is the refugee program with the most bipartisan backing, and it mostly helps Muslims. Supporters, however, may have to fight again after the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump, whose “Muslim ban” became “extreme vetting” of immigrants from countries tied to terrorism. His nominee for attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, has questioned whether all Afghan refugees who get visas are deserving, even though the vetting has become stricter in recent years.

These are Afghans who put their lives on the line to help the U.S. military. It would be a stain on our honor if they’re not given sanctuary and a better chance to make their place in America.

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