Kansas has a history of being a home for refugees. What role will the state play for Afghans?

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal

Thousands of refugees from Afghanistan are set to arrive in the United States in the coming weeks, although it is unclear what role, if any, Kansas will play in the process. 

Scores of Afghan nationals are fleeing the country to escape potential retaliation Taliban forces, who retook control of the country after U.S. military forces withdrew earlier this month.

That includes an estimated 88,000 Afghans who helped the decades-long American military campaign in the country, including drivers, translators and others who served in support positions. These individuals are eligible for the Special Immigration Visa program, which grants recipients a green card and a path to citizenship, although visa-holders aren't technically counted as refugees.

About 18,000 of these SIV applications are pending, according to the New York Times, with more expected to file as the political situation in the country deteriorates. President Joe Biden's administration has been met with sharp criticism for a slow-moving backlog of visas.

In this photo provided by the Spanish Defense Ministry, people board a Spanish air force A400 plane as part of an evacuation plan Wednesday at the Kabul airport in Afghanistan.

More:Child sleeps under US soldier's uniform, another passed over a wall: These are the kids fleeing Afghanistan

Far more individuals will likely seek asylum in the U.S. While the Taliban has pledged to not exact revenge on political opponents and women, there is fear based on past targeting of these groups, as well as ethnic and religious minorities.

About 30,000 SIV applicants are set to be housed at military installations in Texas and Wisconsin as their applications are processed. For the 2,000 and counting SIV holders who have had their application approved in recent weeks, roughly 20 cities will be their likely destination, the closest of which is Denver.

If called upon, Gov. Laura Kelly said Kansas would welcome SIV applicants to the state.

“Shall we be asked, the State of Kansas would welcome refugees and families who supported American troops, our operations, and our cause during our time in Afghanistan," Kelly said in a statement.

Kansas Congressional delegation urges aid for Americans, Afghan allies

There is a growing bipartisan push in Congress to heighten the urgency surrounding the SIV program, with U.S. Sens Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Roger Marshall, R-Kan., among those signing on to a letter urging the "urgent evacuation of SIV applicants whose service to the U.S. mission has put their lives in jeopardy."

The letter also pushes for the Biden administration to implement changes to the SIV program already authorized earlier this summer, including expanding eligibility and increasing the number of visas eligible.

"We must now concentrate all U.S. efforts on supporting and protecting our Afghan allies," the letter said. "Anything short of full implementation results in grave security implications."

Gov. Laura Kelly said in a statement Thursday that individuals who aided U.S. forces in Afghanistan would be welcome to resettle in Kansas, if the state was asked to support the effort to support thousands of Afghan citizens who have or are waiting to receive visas

U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, D-Kan., U.S. Rep. Jake LaTurner, R-Kan., and U.S. Rep. Ron Estes, R-Kan., urged similar action to support Afghan allies.

"Our top priority needs to be ensuring the safe evacuation of the thousands of Americans currently stranded in Afghanistan," LaTurner said in a statement. "Failure to do so is not an option. We also must secure the departure of the Afghans that fought along side us for freedom. Their lives are at risk under vicious Taliban rule.”

And there is also growing concern that SIV applicants and their families, as well as thousands of American citizens, won't be evacuated by the end of the month, the self-imposed goal set by the Biden administration.

More:Can Kansas find a way to maintain its water supply? Lawmakers searching for answers.

Marshall's office has gotten more than 100 emails from U.S. citizens in the country, seeking evacuation assistance.  

"Senator Marshall’s office is working closely with the State Department to get these people to safety," spokesperson Michawn Rich said in an email. "All evacuees must be vetted properly to safeguard our national security."

‘It's just such an important time for refugee resettlement’

While Kansas has a history of accepting refugees dating back to the mid-20th century, it is unclear whether there is a robust infrastructure to support large-scale resettlement. 

The most likely place to house temporarily house individuals would be the state's two military installations. But a representative for Fort Leavenworth said the base didn't have adequate housing to bring in refugees. A spokesman for Fort Riley referred comment to the U.S. Northern Command, which didn't reply when asked if that base could support refugees.

The largest resettlement organization in the state is Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas, who settles roughly 400 individuals a year. Their sister group in southwest Kansas handles resettlement work in that region, as does the International Rescue Committee in the greater Wichita area.

Under Gov. Sam Brownback, the state office handling refugee resettlement — which largely helped serve as a conduit for federal funds and support — was privatized and is handled by a branch of the IRC.

More:Mike Pompeo says President Biden 'leading with weakness' as Taliban take over Afghanistan

Refugees have been resettled in southwest Kansas since the 1970s, said Deborah Snapp, executive director of Catholic Charities of Southwest Kansas.

"We've had so much cultural growth in our area, since the first packing plants were built in 1979," Snapp said. "And so we've had a real growth of the Hispanic population, the Southeast Asian refugees that came in the '70s because they were hired to work in the plants.

"You know, many of them did not stay because winter temperatures were not fun, but we still have business owners that were part of that original group that exists here in southwest Kansas."

The group settles about 50 refugees annually in Garden City, Dodge City and other cities in the region, although it is set to double that number next fiscal year, after the Biden administration moved to increase the cap on the number of refugees allowed into the U.S.

And the group is also in talks to expand its efforts. It is only able to resettle individuals in the region if they have a family member or sponsor. Snapp said this still requires extensive efforts to welcome refugees, arrange for housing and employment and offer a suite of services, including English classes and help in getting driver's licenses and other paperwork.

There remains high demand from employers in expanding the number refugees in the area, particularly among meatpacking plants, with the group a natural base of potential workers for National Beef, Tyson and other companies with a presence in the region.

And while it is unclear if southwest Kansas, or the state as a whole, will be called upon to house refugees from Afghanistan, Snapp said she believed they would be welcomed if and when they come to a new home on the prairie.

"It's just such an important time for refugee resettlement and the important role that they play in American life," she said. "And, you know, even with all the struggles that we're seeing in Afghanistan, it's good to see that there is some recognition of the important role that they play."