Ambassador Julieta Valls Noyes (far left), then-nominee to be assistant secretary for population, refugees and migration, speaks with Department of State volunteers supporting Operation Allies Welcome at Dulles International Airport, Sept. 1, 2021. Photo by Isaac Pacheco
By Katherine Leahy
In August 2021, the entire world was watching as the city of Kabul fell and the U.S. government undertook the largest humanitarian airlift in its history. In just fifteen days, more than 75,000 Afghan nationals fled their homes and were evacuated to the United States. Most arrived, quite literally, with only the clothes on their backs and with an enormous challenge in front of them: starting a new life, unexpectedly and with little notice, in a distant country. What those images could not show were the millions of people just like them who, for over a century, have successfully sought refuge from persecution and safety from violence within the United States.
As the Nazi regime rose to power in Germany, groups of concerned, private citizens assisted vulnerable scientists, artists, cultural leaders, and others to flee Europe for the United States. This expanded upon the work begun by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society in the late 19th century to help Jews escape pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe. That first refugee group included Lithuanian painter Marc Chagall and German political philosopher Hannah Arendt. Non-governmental organizations like the International Rescue Committee and Church World Service joined the effort as well, assisting thousands of European refugees to resettle in U.S. cities during the war and in its immediate aftermath. The fall of Vietnam in 1975 and the subsequent influx of refugees from Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and other southeast Asian nations at war prompted Congress to formalize the refugee admissions process. They did that with the Refugee Act of 1980, which paved the way for the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP).
Today, the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration’s Office of Admissions (PRM/A), in collaboration with the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services, runs USRAP. Under the leadership of Office Director Larry Bartlett and Deputy Director Kelly Gauger, PRM/A’s team of more than 30 Foreign and Civil Service officers work together with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), other international organizations, nine refugee resettlement agency partners, state and local officials, and communities across the country to screen refugee resettlement applicants and process applications. These organizations also work to relocate and settle refugees within the United States, in welcoming communities with sufficient educational, health care, and employment resources to help them start new lives. Some of those partner agencies are the very same ones that helped facilitate the arrival of World War II refugees nearly eight decades ago, while others are newer partners, all working to help the U.S. government continue its proud history of welcoming the most vulnerable people. The PRM/A Overseas Processing team oversees the refugee resettlement process from the time UNHCR refers a refugee for resettlement in the United States until they depart for the United States on IOM-arranged transportation. The section chief and the team of program officers and analysts work closely with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, PRM refugee coordinators at U.S. embassies, and the non-governmental and international organizations that manage seven PRM-funded resettlement support centers, ensuring each resettlement applicant is fully screened and matched with a U.S. resettlement agency before they depart for the United States.
The Domestic Program team, led by Section Chief Holly Herrera, oversees the second half of the resettlement process, starting when U.S. Customs and Border Protection admits a newly-arrived refugee at a port of entry through that individual’s first 90 days in the local U.S. community where they resettle. Herrera and her team coordinate with the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, the Centers for Disease Control, domestic refugee resettlement agencies, and state and local governments and service providers to place refugees in communities across the country to ensure newly arrived refugees receive essential economic, social, and housing support to ease their transition into their new communities.
The Refugee Processing Center (RPC), led by Director Hilary Ingraham and Deputy Director Nicole Patel, is the bridge between the overseas and domestic processing functions. RPC develops and maintains the case management system and other tools used for processing refugees from initial referral overseas to final resettlement in the United States. The center also builds reporting to inform data-driven decisions, provide system security oversight and guidance across all aspects of the program, and conduct certain refugee processing activities such as coordinating approved applicants’ assignment to domestic resettlement agencies.
Finally, the Policy Team coordinates PRM/A’s leadership of U.S. refugee resettlement policy formulation and implementation. Section Chief Cameron McGlothlin and his team prepare Department of State principals to represent the Department in interagency discussions, public engagements, and Congressional hearings on refugee resettlement policy, and work collaboratively with the overseas, domestic, and RPC teams on security vetting policy, privacy issues, and public and Congressional affairs. It also leads on global resettlement diplomacy, pressing other governments to make generous commitments to welcome refugees as a critical response to global displacement.
But even for a seasoned team of experts like PRM/A’s, the Afghan relocation effort represented an extraordinary challenge. Faced with a global pandemic, a nationwide affordable housing shortage, and significant staffing gaps at resettlement agency affiliates, the PRM/A team worked around the clock to find innovative ways to accomplish the mission of processing and resettling 75,000 evacuated Afghan nationals into U.S. communities. They supported the resettlement agencies to expand their domestic networks, adding more than 150 new local affiliates and community partners in a matter of weeks. They brokered groundbreaking partnerships with other federal agencies, veterans’ organizations, Afghan and Islamic coalitions, and nonprofits to build those institutions’ capacity and resources to transition our Afghan guests to new resettlement communities by the mid-February 2022 deadline. And they facilitated the creation of the Sponsor Circle program, an initiative enabling groups of private individuals to sponsor Afghan refugees directly, outside of the formal refugee resettlement process. The Sponsor Circle program highlights the United States’ long, proud history of refugee resettlement, echoing the early efforts of concerned private citizens to provide refuge and safety to the most vulnerable. Perhaps, and most importantly, all of these game-changing innovations will help strengthen and grow the global resettlement infrastructure, ensuring the Department can deliver on President Joe Biden’s ambitious new refugee admissions targets for years to come.
“I have said it many times, but it is always worth repeating,” said PRM Assistant Secretary Julieta Valls Noyes. “As the daughter of Cuban refugees, my own story would not be possible without the work of dedicated professionals like PRM’s Admissions team. It is the great honor of my professional life to lead this bureau as we continue to rebuild the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program and help the most vulnerable start writing their own American stories.”
Katherine Leahy is special assistant to the assistant secretary in the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.