Protocol | Policy

Tech giants want to hire Afghan refugees. The system’s in the way.

Amazon, Facebook and Uber have all committed to hiring and training Afghan evacuees. But executing on that promise is another story.

A silhouette of Afghan refugees waiting outdoors

"They're authorized to work, but their authorization has an expiration date."

Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

Late last month, Amazon, Facebook and Uber joined dozens of other companies in publicly committing to hire and train some of the 95,000 Afghan refugees who are expected to be resettled in the United States over the next year, about half of whom are already here.

But nearly two months since U.S. evacuations from Kabul ended and one month since the companies' public commitments, efforts to follow through with those promised jobs remain stalled. That, experts say, is partly to do with the fact that the vast majority of Afghan arrivals are still being held at military bases, partly to do with their legal classification and partly to do with a refugee resettlement system that was systematically dismantled by the Trump administration.

"The Trump administration made significant cuts to the number of refugees who were allowed to resettle in the United States, which had a pretty devastating impact on the refugee resettlement system and infrastructure here in the United States," said Yaron Schwartz, associate director of the Tent Partnership for Refugees, a nonprofit that helps companies hire refugees and coordinated the recent round of commitments. "The Biden administration, even before the Afghan crisis, has really been in the process of rebuilding that refugee resettlement system."

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services directed Protocol to The Department of Homeland Security for comment. DHS did not respond.

Technically speaking, the vast majority of people who were evacuated from Afghanistan and are currently being vetted at military bases are not refugees, but "humanitarian parolees." This special designation was required in order to relocate tens of thousands of Afghans in such a short amount of time, but it also comes with complications when it comes to the hiring process. Parolees need special work authorization before they can get a job, a process that can take weeks. But even once they're authorized, Afghan parolees currently have no pathway to permanent residence.

"They're authorized to work, but their authorization has an expiration date," said Matthew Soerens, U.S. director of church mobilization for World Relief, one of nine refugee resettlement agencies in the country. "There are other categories of immigrants in our country who have temporary status, especially in the tech sector, but it is a barrier in some ways for employers."

World Relief is currently advocating for Congress to create a pathway to permanent legal status, similar to the pathway that exists for Cubans in the U.S. For now, though, Afghan parolees' primary options are to apply for asylum or, for those who worked for the U.S., to wait for their special immigrant visas to be approved. But, Soerens noted, both processes are time intensive and require extensive documentation from a population of people who have just left everything behind.

"You might not have the documented evidence that allows you to file a case," he said. "People may have literally destroyed the evidence that shows why they were afraid of persecution because they couldn't get caught with it by the Taliban."

This problem, of course, pre-dates the Trump administration, said Xiao Wang, CEO of Boundless Immigration, a company that helps people apply for visas and citizenship. "There was no steady or guaranteed timeline on how long getting approved as a refugee — outside the U.S. — or as an asylee — inside the U.S. — would take, though it's in the order of years," Wang said. "This creates a huge amount of uncertainty for employers ... who have no way of knowing when the person they have hired will actually be approved and able to begin work."

The Trump years also created new challenges, as the administration drastically reduced the number of refugees admitted into the U.S. per year from around 85,000 in 2016 to around 12,000 the last two years. At the same time, the administration cut funding to refugee resettlement agencies. According to Soerens, World Relief was forced to close eight of its field offices and reduce its U.S. staff by a third.

"Basically, the floor fell out from underneath us," Soerens said.

In addition to the tens of thousands of Afghan parolees, the Biden administration has lifted the ceiling for people who are actually designated as refugees to 125,000. But keeping pace with demand, after years of constriction, is a struggle for refugee resettlement agencies. "We want to do everything we can to welcome Afghans," Soerens said. "But we're expected to resettle as many people in the next three months as the last three years. We can't multiply our staff and geographic footprint by 12 in the next three months."

Despite these obstacles, both Soerens and Schwartz said finding employers who actually want to hire Afghan people is the easy part. The current labor shortage coupled with the fact that Afghans tend to have higher levels of education and more English proficiency than other refugee populations means World Relief can be a little pickier when directing Afghans to job opportunities. "After the recession in 2008 and 2009 it was hard to find refugees jobs," Soerens said. "That's not the case now. There are so many jobs available. We can be selective."

Some companies that made the recent pledge, like Amazon, already have lots of experience hiring refugees and will be well-positioned to hire them once the bureaucratic red tape has cleared. "We're committed to providing employment support for Afghan refugees and have been heavily engaged with NGOs and refugee resettlement agencies," an Amazon spokesperson said.

Others, like Facebook, have a steeper path to full-time employment and are focusing their efforts on offering digital skills training, in hopes of helping Afghan refugees to land jobs later on, Schwartz said. Facebook didn't respond to Protocol's request for comment.

Meanwhile the Tent Partnership, which is also working with corporate giants in other sectors including logistics, retail, hospitality and food, is working on getting corporate HR departments ready to onboard Afghans once their work authorizations are ready. "We're offering training for their HR teams on what it will look like to hire Afghan talent and make sure they have the resources and support to do that effectively," Schwartz said.

For now, though, these companies — and the people they hope to hire — are mostly just waiting.

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