SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota is one of four states, along with the District of Columbia, that won't be resettling any of the nearly 37,000 Afghan evacuees who made it to the U.S. during the final days of its chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan last month.
Lutheran Social Services of South Dakota, which is the state's refugee resettlement agency, decided not to accept any Afghans after weighing local conditions and its ability to resettle them.
Rebecca Kiesow-Knudsen, the group’s chief operating officer, said Thursday that those arriving from Afghanistan without special immigrant visas are currently not eligible to work or receive federal aid to help them resettle.
“We had really significant concerns about our ability to provide the level of support to help make that integration successful,” she said.
Kiesow-Knudsen said the agency was facing a “rapidly evolving situation” that could change depending on whether Congress decides to provide funding and work eligibility for evacuees who have not been granted refugee status.
The Biden administration this week began telling governors and state refugee coordinators how many Afghan evacuees they would receive. The numbers ranged from more than 5,200 people who are headed to California to as few as 10 being resettled in Alabama and 10 in Mississippi. South Dakota, along with Hawaii, West Virginia, Wyoming and the District of Columbia, are not expected to resettle anyone from the first group.
Republican Gov. Kristi Noem last month expressed reservations about accepting evacuees from Afghanistan. She told KSFY-TV, "We do not want them coming here unless we know they are an ally and a friend, and that they don’t want to destroy this country.”
Noem in 2019 decided to continue allowing refugees to be resettled in the state after former President Donald Trump attempted to allow states to opt out of the program. But refugee numbers in South Dakota have plummeted in recent years. Lutheran Social Services reported resettling 50 people during the last fiscal year — a drop from 439 just four years earlier.
States with large numbers of Afghans who settled in the U.S. over the past 20 years, including California, Maryland, Texas and Virginia, are again welcoming a disproportionate number of evacuees, according to data for the Afghan Placement and Assistance program obtained by The Associated Press.
Kiesow-Knudsen said there isn't much of an Afghan community in South Dakota. The agency has resettled 12 people from the country in the last five years.
She said, “We want to make sure that anyone who would arrive in South Dakota would be successful in integrating."