Legislators on Monday will decide millions to help Afghans resettle in Oregon

An $18 million package waiting for emergency legislative approval has been pushed to the front of the special session agenda that had been focused on rental assistance.

By: - December 13, 2021 5:30 am
Welcome at airport for Afghan family

Volunteers with Salem for Refugees welcomed an Afghan family at the Portland International Airport in 2021. (Salem for Refugees/Salem Reporter)

Legislators on Monday will consider appropriating $18 million to aid Afghan refugee resettlement in Oregon with housing, legal services, language and job training programs.

The enhanced program would help up to 1,200 Afghan refugees expected to be resettled in Oregon in the next year. 

State Sen. Kayse Jama, D-Portland, and Rep. Khanh Pham, D-Portland, convened a workgroup involving public officials and nonprofits to address Afghan resettlement in Oregon shortly after U.S. troops left Afghanistan in August. Since then, more than six million Afghans have fled their country, according to the United Nations, and the Biden administration plans to resettle ​​125,000 Afghan refugees in the U.S. this year.

Jama and Pham, with support from state Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, sought to have the $18 million in resettlement funds be considered Monday instead of later by the legislative Emergency Board or during the regular session in February.

As of Dec. 9, 258 Afghan refugees were already in Oregon with 116 living in hotels, according to the Oregon Department of Human Services Office of Emergency Management. The agency  expects up to 570 Afghan refugees by the end of February, adding urgency to getting funds now, according to Knopp. 

The last legislative session ended in July, before U.S. troops left Afghanistan and before state leaders knew that additional resources to the state’s refugee resettlement budget would be needed to support the arrival of Afghan refugees, according to Robin Ye, chief of staff for Pham. 

The $18 million proposed is for those who are already at U.S. bases in the country and bases abroad who are waiting to be resettled in Oregon, according to Ye. Some bases have housed thousands of Afghan refugees waiting to be resettled in the U.S.

The money will also help five faith-based organizations in the state who work directly with refugees expand their capacity. That includes Lutheran Community Services Northwest, Catholic Charities, Salem for Refugees, Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon and Sponsors Organized to Assist Refugees​.

“A lot will go to helping them with housing and legal services. Those are two buckets the federal government isn’t funding as much directly,” Ye said.

The Office of Emergency Management will also continue to help temporarily house newly arrived refugees, which has continued to be a challenge as Oregon grapples with a statewide housing shortage. Many refugees are being housed in hotels and motels, Ye said. 

Federal guidelines require refugees to live within a 100-mile radius of a refugee agency for their first 90 days, meaning all need to live within 100 miles of either Portland or Salem. 

“No one can be placed as far as Ashland or southern Oregon yet,” Ye said.

Earlier this year, the Legislature created an Office of Immigrant and Refugee Advancement within Gov. Kate Brown’s office to operate a statewide immigrant and refugee strategy. The office isn’t running yet, prompting the need to get an aid package for new Afghan refugees in place as soon as possible, Ye said.

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Alex Baumhardt
Alex Baumhardt

Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post. She previously worked in Iceland and Qatar and was a Fulbright scholar in Spain where she earned a master's degree in digital media. She's been a kayaking guide in Alaska, farmed on four continents and worked the night shift at several bakeries to support her reporting along the way.

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