Oregon lawmakers leading the effort to resettle Afghan refugees are asking the Legislature’s emergency board for an additional $18 million to expand services and capacity.
In a letter issued last week by Rep. Khanh Pham and Sen. Kayse Jama, the two Portland-area Democrats outlined the need for the state to invest in everything from housing assistance and case management to legal services for newly arrived Afghans.
According to the letter, the state is preparing to take in approximately 1,200 people in the next 12 months, of which 570 are expected to arrive by the end of February.
Dozens of refugees have already arrived in Oregon. The five resettlement agencies operating in Portland and Salem are currently working to identify long-term housing while providing culturally-specific education, including language and job training, schooling for families with children and legal aid.
Jama and Pham commended the work that has already begun. But both said future work will require further investment by the state.
“We (are) proud of Oregon elected leaders and Oregonians … who have stated that we must do our part in this humanitarian crisis,” the letter said. “We deeply appreciate your attention and support on this urgent matter to allocate adequate resources to welcome our future neighbors.”
The $18 million Jama and Pham are requesting represents a 12-month plan broken down into four silos: $5.3 million to support the Department of Human Services’ emergency management unit; $3.7 million to bolster case management and community outreach; $6 million for housing assistance; and $2.9 million for legal services.
Part of the funding request would create a full-time refugee housing coordinator within DHS who would identify vacancies, coordinate placement among the five resettlement agencies and build relationships with property managers.
Dollars to provide legal services would support refugees arriving under “humanitarian parole” status who need to immediately apply for permanent immigration. Many people will require help navigating the complex immigration system to avoid removal from the country.
Jama and Pham also noted that they’ve begun conversations with philanthropic organizations willing to add financial support to state funding.
According to the letter, the Immigrant and Refugees Funder Collaborative — which is backed by the Meyer Memorial Trust, MRG Foundation, Pride Foundation and Oregon Community Foundation — is poised to provide additional support to the state’s effort.
“These organizations have committed funding toward refugee resettlement organizations to hire additional staff and provide limited program support. By leveraging federal and philanthropic dollars, the state’s investments will have a greater impact,” the letter said.
Jama said there isn’t a firm timeline on when the 18-member emergency board — which includes Senate President Peter Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek, as well as chairs of both chambers’ budget committees — might meet to consider the request.
“We want to ensure that the agencies and people who are welcoming refugees are supported. That’s really the goal of our work,” he said.
Attached to last week’s letter from Jama and Pham was another letter signed by each of the state’s five resettlement agencies, urging the emergency board to act on the lawmakers’ request.
Matthew Westerbeck, director of resettlement services for Catholic Charities of Oregon, said he believes the state’s engagement in this issue is essential to organizations like his welcoming more individuals and families to Oregon with the highest level of services.
According to Westerbeck, the lingering COVID-19 pandemic and stunted hiring market have posed challenges to resettlement agencies at a time where they’re being asked to help more refugees in a shorter window than ever before.
“Catholic Charities welcomed more people in the last five weeks than we did in the entirety of fiscal years 2020 and 2021,” Westerbeck said. “The capacity growth is just massively accelerated, and necessary, so we’re thinking about how we make sure we have all the right pieces in place to move forward in a way that’s appropriate and safe for families.”