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Oregon lawmakers call for US to allow more Afghan refugees into state

Two Portland-area lawmakers have sent a letter to Gov. Kate Brown and Oregon’s federal delegation calling on the Biden-Harris administration to lift caps on the number of refugees the United States can take in following the collapse of the Afghan state to Taliban advances over the weekend.

The letter was published Tuesday afternoon by Sen. Kayse Jama, D-SE Portland/North Clackamas, and Rep. Khanh Pham, D-East Portland. In it, the two legislators — joined by many of their colleagues — call for the safe passage of Afghan refugees into the United States.

It also urges the federal government to engage in swift humanitarian action in an effort to save lives and support those fleeing violence.

“As Oregonians, we welcome vulnerable and displaced families seeking refuge from violence and oppression. We know that in the current context women, children, and LGBTQ+ people — as well as those that work on their behalf — are under immediate threat of violence and death,” the letter reads. “As the Taliban claims more territory across the country, the danger that Afghan refugees face grows every day, especially for those who risked their lives to support American troops and for human rights and gender equality advocates.”

The current cap on refugees was set at 62,500 per year by President Joe Biden back in May. That raised the limit from Trump-era caps set at 15,000.

Pham said that the main goal of their letter was to emphasize that the U.S. needs to act with a sense of urgency.

“This isn’t business as usual,” Pham said.

Jama and Pham drew comparison between the situation unfolding in Afghanistan and the U.S. exit from the Vietnam War. Jama and Pham say the federal government should repeat what it did in 1975 when it lifted refugee caps and allowed tens of thousands of Vietnamese refugees into the country — including Pham’s parents who immigrated to the United States after the fall of Saigon.

“For me, it’s that we want to be a part of this conversation,” Pham said. “We want to encourage as many of our fellow legislators and the governor to share the sentiment that we are ready. That Oregon is a welcoming state.”

According to the United Nations, the U.S. has taken in more than 3 million refugees from across the globe since 1975.

The letter also notes that the state is particularly well-poised to handle an influx of refugees.

The Oregon Legislature recently passed Senate Bill 778, which created the new Office of Immigrant and Refugee Advancement beneath the governor’s office to help the state improve services for Oregon’s newest residents and bolster integration strategies. Jama and Pham helped usher the bill through their respective chambers.

“(SB 778) reflects what we hope our Oregon values to be when we look out for our neighbors and stand up for justice,” the letter said.

Jama said the state has invested $4.5 million in resettlement programs to focus support for refugees coming to Oregon.

According to Jama, his intent is to lend his voice in notifying the federal government that this issue is going to take an ongoing investment and effort to help as many people as possible.

“Refugees are very resilient community members,” he said. “What they need is ongoing support to deal with the cost of housing and basic needs.”

Pham said that after two decades of occupation, the U.S. owes it to the Afghan people to provide as much support as it can muster. So far, the Biden-Harris administration has pledged around $500 million to aid in resettlement and humanitarian efforts.

She hopes to see investments in local organizations and programs that are equipped to help receive newly arrived families in Oregon with things such as airport welcome teams, apartment set up teams and cultural orientation classes to start with.

“We’ll definitely need all hands on deck to make sure that we truly are living our values, that we’re actually showing these newcomers that we’re here for them for the long term so they have a smooth transition to their new home,” she said.

Pham and Jama both emphasized the importance of processing refugees on U.S. soil so that they are protected by American law and that delays in resettlement are minimized.

The list of signatures on Jama and Pham’s letter continues to grow Tuesday as more lawmakers back their effort to urge the federal government to act. So far 30 members of Oregon’s House and 16 Senate members have signed on.

“Oregonians are caring and compassionate people,” Jama said. “I think our mission here, the leaders who are adding their names to this letter, reflects that value of Oregonians who are willing to welcome those who are fleeing war and persecution. As a former refugee, I’m extremely grateful and really touched by the support”

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting