SALT LAKE CITY — The U.S. State Department recently released a list of 19 "welcoming communities" in the U.S. where Afghan citizens fleeing the Taliban are recommended to settle once their paperwork is finalized and visas are granted.
Included in the list is Salt Lake City.
"We're still in a planning phase right now," said Aden Batar, director of migration and refugee services for the Catholic Community Services' Utah branch. "But there are a couple cases that we've approved and we expect them to arrive in the next few weeks."
Batar said between Catholic Community Services and the International Rescue Committee, Utah's two refugee resettlement agencies, the Beehive State should expect a "couple hundred" newcomers in the coming weeks or months.
"The difficulty is we don't know how many the State Department or Department of Homeland Security are planning to send on their way here to Utah," Batar said.
"We're expecting to see more families start to arrive in the next three to six weeks or so, so right now we're gearing up to welcome (them)," said Natalie El-Deiry, executive director of the International Rescue Committee in Salt Lake City. "My understanding is that they're still processing people on site on the military bases."
Who is moving to Utah?
The majority of Afghans being resettled in the U.S. can be categorized in two groups. Those in the first group have been granted a Special Immigrant Visa, meaning they worked alongside U.S. and allied forces, often as interpreters, translators or contractors.
Anyone granted a visa has three options:
- They can choose from the recently curated list of 19 U.S. cities, each one identified by the State Department "as locations with reasonable cost of living, housing availability, supportive services, and welcoming communities with volunteers and resources."
- They can move to a city where they can prove an existing tie, usually a family member or friend.
- They can defer to a resettlement agency, who will pick a city for them based on their current needs.
Others have humanitarian parole status. These people likely meet the qualifications for a special immigrant visa, but the U.S. Embassy did not have time to process their paperwork during the chaotic evacuation of Afghanistan.
The parolees — a term Batar stressed simply means the U.S. is interested in giving an individual humanitarian assistance — will be vetted just like refugees and eventually granted asylum.
The rest have Humanitarian Parole Status. These people likely meet the qualifications for a Special Immigrant Visa, but the U.S. Embassy did not have time to process their paperwork during the chaotic evacuation of Afghanistan.
"As the evacuations were happening, there was an initial vetting or screening process for individuals that would be designated into one of those three categories," El-Deiry said. "I don't imagine there's a lot of people that are falling through the cracks, as chaotic the operation seemed, there was some process."
The State Department estimates 123,000, including about 6,000 American citizens, have been safely flown out of Afghanistan. It remains unclear how many Afghans will be granted visas and be resettled in the U.S.
What is the vetting process?
The vetting process has come under scrutiny from some elected officials who have expressed concern over where the refugees are coming from, and a lack of faith in President Joe Biden's administration.
"This is a dangerous part of the world, we know we have a lot of dangerous people who are there that want to do the United States harm," South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem told Dakota News Now. "We do not want them coming here unless we know they are an ally and a friend, and that they don't want to destroy this country."
In his 25 years of working with Catholic Community Services — a span where tens of thousands of refugees have resettled in Utah — Batar said he doesn't know of a single person his agency has interacted with that had ties to a criminal or terrorist organization.
"The U.S. will not admit or bring into the U.S. anyone who they don't know who they are ... no one would be able to sneak in through that system," he said. "Utah has been doing this for 40 years, we have over 60,000 refugees living here."
The current vetting process is an extensive one that — contrary to what some elected officials like Noem suggest — is nearly impossible for criminal or terror groups to infiltrate. The U.S. has resettled close to 1 million refugees since the Sept. 11 attacks, and just three were arrested on terror-related charges, according to the Washington Post.
Anyone wishing to participate in the country's refugee admission program is screened by the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and National Counterterrorism Center. Applicants are interviewed in person, subjected to fingerprinting, medical screenings, cultural trainings and more.
And when they actually settle in Utah, Batar said, the screening doesn't necessarily stop.
"We will be connecting them to services, we will be sending their info to the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department of Public Safety, they will apply for an ID and we will be working with them for a period of time," he said.
"We know them, we will find them housing, staff members will be working one-on-one with them. the community shouldn't worry about them. This is what we do best."
El-Deiry echoed Batar, telling the Deseret News that "the refugee resettlement process is one of the most robust processing systems that exists, essentially in the world."
"With the evacuations and the expedited scenarios that people were going through, that process is a little different right now but the standards are the same," she said.
'A long history of welcoming refugees'
As the chaos in Afghanistan was unfolding, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox penned a letter to Biden expressing the Beehive State's willingness to accept refugees fleeing the war.
"When tragedy occurs somewhere on the other side of the world, Utahns are always quick to show concern and willingness to help out," Cox said in a prepared statement, adding that his office received "countless calls and emails from individuals, families, businesses and organizations offering to do something to support the efforts to bring Afghan refugees to Utah."
And on CNN's "State of the Union," Utah Sen. Mitt Romney said the country has a "moral responsibility" to accept refugees from Afghanistan, telling Jake Tapper: "I am very pleased that we're going to have individuals that come to our country that can contribute to America."
"Utah has a long history of welcoming refugees," El-Deiry said. "Historically, Utah has welcomed around 1,000 individuals a year."
As refugees start to trickle in, El-Deiry said they will be happy to find an already well-established Afghan community along the Wasatch Front.
"We've actually been welcoming refugees from Afghanistan for some time now and there is a fairly large population of Afghan community members who live here," she said. "It's just adding to the fabric of an existing community."