• The San Juan Daily Star

Americans stretch across political divides to welcome Afghan refugees

By Miriam Jordan and Jennifer Steinhauer

The hundreds of parishioners at Desert Springs Bible Church, a sprawling megachurch in the northern suburbs of Phoenix, are divided over mask mandates, the presidential election and what to do about migrants on the border. But they are unified on one issue: the need for the United States to take in thousands of Afghan evacuees, and they are passing the plate to make it happen.

“Even the most right-leaning isolationists within our sphere recognize the level of responsibility that America has to people who sacrificed for the nation’s interest,” said Caleb Campbell, the evangelical church’s lead pastor.

The church recently inaugurated a campaign to raise money for the dozens of Afghan families who are expected to start streaming into greater Phoenix in the next several weeks. Already, thousands of dollars have flowed into the church’s “benevolence fund.”

“This is a galvanizing moment,” said Campbell, 39.

Throughout the United States, Americans across the political spectrum are stepping forward to welcome Afghans who aided the U.S. war effort in one of the largest mass mobilizations of volunteers since the end of the Vietnam War.

In rural Minnesota, an agricultural specialist has been working on visa applications and providing temporary housing for the newcomers, and she has set up an area for halal meat processing on her farm. In California, a group of veterans has sent a welcoming committee to the Sacramento airport to greet every arriving family. In Arkansas, volunteers are signing up to buy groceries, do airport pickups and host families in their homes.

“Thousands of people just fled their homeland with maybe one set of spare clothes,” said Jessica Ginger, 39, of Bentonville, Arkansas. “They need housing and support, and I can offer both.”

In a nation that is polarized on issues from abortion to the coronavirus pandemic, Afghan refugees have cleaved a special place for many Americans, especially those who worked for U.S. forces and nongovernmental organizations, or who otherwise aided the U.S. effort to free Afghanistan from the Taliban.

The moment stands in contrast to the last four years when the country, led by a president who restricted immigration and enacted a ban on travel from several majority-Muslim countries, was split over whether to welcome or shun people seeking safe haven. And with much of the electorate still deeply divided over immigration, the durability of the present welcome mat remains unknown.

Polls show Republicans are still more hesitant than Democrats to receive Afghans, and some conservative politicians have warned that the rush to resettle so many risks allowing extremists to slip through the screening process. Influential commentators, like Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host, have said the refugees would dilute American culture and harm the Republican Party. Last week, he warned that the Biden administration was “flooding swing districts with refugees that they know will become loyal Democratic voters.”

But a broad array of veterans and lawmakers have long regarded Afghans who helped the United States as military partners, and have long pushed to remove the red tape that has kept them in the country under constant threat from the Taliban. Images of babies being lifted over barbed-wire fences to U.S. soldiers, people clinging to departing planes and a deadly terrorist attack against thousands massed at the airport, desperate to leave, have moved thousands of Americans to join their effort.

“For a nation that has been so divided, it feels good for people to align on a good cause,” said Mike Sullivan, director of the Welcome to America Project in Phoenix. “This country probably hasn’t seen anything like this since Vietnam.”

Federal officials said last week that at least 50,000 Afghans who assisted the U.S. government or who might be targeted by the Taliban are expected to be admitted into the United States in the coming month, although the full number and the time frame of their arrival remains a work in progress. More than 31,000 Afghans have arrived already, although about half were still being processed on military bases, according to internal government documents.

Tens of thousands of Americans are helping to prepare, donating lamps, dishes and blankets, assembling beds and signing on to volunteer. There has been so much goodwill that some groups are struggling to handle it.

“We are telling people, ‘Hold on, we are going to let you know as soon as we need the furniture,’” said Aimee Zangandou, director of refugee and immigrant services at Inspiritus, a resettlement agency in Atlanta and Savannah, Georgia.

The national infrastructure for resettling refugees has shrunk drastically over the last five years as the Trump administration slashed refugee admissions and cut federal funding to the nine contracted resettlement agencies whose caseworkers help arrivals enroll children in school, find jobs and become self-sufficient.

More than 100 offices where refugees seek help when transitioning to their adopted homes had shuttered by 2019.

Now, as agencies scramble to staff up, they are leaning heavily on nonprofits like the Welcome to America Project to set up homes for arrivals, and those groups in turn are tapping into a network of churches, synagogues, Girl Scout troops and neighborhood groups whose members provide furnishings, gift cards and cash as well as volunteer hours.

Public opinion surveys have shown broad support for resettling Afghan refuges. In a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Friday, 68% said they supported taking in refugees who had been subjected to security review, and 27% opposed it. The support included 56% of Republicans. Volunteer agencies said the community mobilization has crossed traditional political dividing lines.

“We have never seen anything like it,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a resettlement agency that has affiliates in 22 states.

Many Afghans are expected to join family and friends in established communities in California, Texas and the Washington, D.C., metro region. But, given the large volume of arrivals, they are likely to land in any corner of the country where jobs are plentiful, housing is affordable and there is a resettlement infrastructure.

Caroline Clarin, who lives in a conservative rural county in northern Minnesota, said she was deeply affected by her two-year experience in eastern Afghanistan teaching families agricultural techniques through an Agriculture Department program.

She has helped to relocate five families from the region, sometimes paying for their passage and temporarily housing them. Two families chose to stay near her in the Fergus Falls area, where she turned a corner of her farm into an area to process halal meat, an exercise that recently led Clarin, 55, to chase a cow 3 miles down a country road.

“I was concerned. I am in an absolutely fire-red area,” she said. But the community, she said, “has been extremely welcoming to them.”

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