Many Afghan refugees, including unaccompanied minors, remain in legal limbo in the U.S.

Since the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan in August, the United States has evacuated more than 75,000 Afghans through Operation Allies Welcome. Roughly 23,000 evacuees remain on six military bases across the U.S., but more than 50,000 have been placed in local communities. After a tumultuous journey, these refugees are now tasked with rebuilding lives in a new country. Amna Nawaz reports.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Since the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan in August, the U.S. has evacuated more than 75,000 Afghans through Operation Allies Welcome. Roughly 23,000 evacuees remain on six military bases across the country, but more than 50,000 have already been placed into local communities.

    After a tumultuous journey, these refugees are now tasked with starting over and rebuilding their lives in a new country.

    Earlier this week, I spoke to Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, who leads refugee resettlement efforts with the Lutheran Immigration Refugee Services.

    Krish, welcome to the "NewsHour," and thank you for making the time.

    We should point out to everyone watching anyone who arrives here has already been vetted before they come to the United States.

    They're housed on these U.S. military bases across the country, and then your organization steps in.

    So, just tell me a little bit about the role that your group plays, and what you do when you first come into contact with these arriving Afghans.

    Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service: Sure.

    So, LIRS one of the nine resettlement agencies that work with the State Department. We are there from beginning to end, meaning we pick these individuals up from the airport. We find them affordable housing that they move into.

    With the help of volunteers, we will actually even furnish that housing with some modest furniture, stock the refrigerator with culturally familiar foods. We will help enroll their kids in public schools, try to connect them to community-based resources, basically be there during those first few days to meet their basic necessities.

    But, in the immediate term, it's also making sure that we can find them a job. So many of them come eager to start contributing, and so we try to help with a range of services.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Krish, how big of an operation is this, in terms of people and resources? We're talking about tens of thousands of people who just left under emergency evacuation and are arriving here with basically nothing but the clothes on their back.

  • Krish O’Mara Vignarajah:

    It is a truly historic effort.

    I think that the last time we saw this scale of an operation was when we resettled 130,000 Vietnamese in about the span of a year. Here, we have about 70,000 released from military bases and coming into communities across the country.

    I think what contributes to the historic part of this effort is that the resettlement infrastructure is coming off of four years where it was decimated. We had more than 100 offices across the network that were closed, shuttered.

    And so we are rebuilding at a time when tens of thousands are coming and need our help. And so case managers are serving the number that they would have served in a year in a week.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, Krish, everyone saw those haunting images during the evacuation, right, people handing babies over the airport wall, people clinging to plane as they took off.

    Tell us a little bit more about the people who did make it.

  • Krish O’Mara Vignarajah:

    Yes, so, thankfully, the military operation evacuated both a number of families, as well as quite a number of unaccompanied children.

    So, these are families who served alongside the military. They worked at the U.S. Embassy. They may have served at a development NGO in Afghanistan. In terms of the children, we're talking about 1,200 children who came.

    The vast majority do have a parent or guardian here in the U.S. who will serve as a sponsor. But there are a couple hundred children who are still in our care and custody. And so they will face the legal limbo, because they are not coming in as unaccompanied refugee minors. So they have to go into the asylum program.

    The complexity here is that they have experienced more trauma than I have ever seen with unaccompanied children, the trauma of leaving Afghanistan, the trauma of what was a treacherous and uncertain journey, and then the trauma of not knowing whether they will actually get legal relief.

    And so, that instability, it just makes their healing process delayed.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Like any newly arriving population, there's always some element here in America that greets them with hostility. This is sort of the history of this country. And this group is no exception.

    We have seen a number of people on the far right talking about terrorism and saying, America is full, there's no room for refugees.

    How worried are you about threats to these Afghan families?

  • Krish O’Mara Vignarajah:

    The truth is, they are fleeing terrorism. They are fleeing risks, threats that were directly made to them and their families.

    And so we are still seeing people who are fearmongering. But, by and large, we have seen so many political leaders even who said, we want to help. We want to help. This is who we are as a nation. It's not just the right thing to do, but of course, the smart thing to do, so many employers who are saying now is the time to welcome these Afghans, because we are desperately in need of the talent that they represent.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently visited one of your facilities here in Virginia. He is among those who said that the U.S. will continue to have a commitment to Afghans who were left behind.

    We know thousands who worked with the U.S.-led effort there over 20 years. What do you think that the U.S. owes to those Afghans?

  • Krish O’Mara Vignarajah:

    We know that, conservatively, there are at least 200,000, more likely a quarter-of-a-million, who are still in harm's way.

    What we have stressed to Secretary Blinken and the rest of the government is, that though our military presence has ended, our mission has not. And we have got to make sure that, whether it is protecting those at-risk Afghans, protecting women and girls, we're trying to make sure that we continue to have a strong presence in Afghanistan.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration Refugee Services.

    Thank you so much for being with us.

  • Krish O’Mara Vignarajah:

    Thanks for having me.

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