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A year after fall of Kabul, Afghan evacuees face uncertainty in US

Afghan refugees arrive at Dulles International Airport on August 27, 2021, in Dulles, Virginia after being evacuated from Kabul following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.    (Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)
By Caroline Simon CQ-Roll Call

WASHINGTON — Tens of thousands of Afghans have made new homes in the U.S. in the year since the fall of Kabul, after a harrowing evacuation from the Middle East and a months-long resettlement process.

But Congress hasn’t acted on legislative proposals to provide permanent relief for roughly 76,000 of those Afghans, who are unable to fully plan their next steps in America because they could face deportation if their temporary protections lapse.

Many are eligible for asylum status, or for special immigrant visas provided to those who helped the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan. But both those processes are beset by lengthy backlogs that leave Afghan evacuees in legal limbo.

Last week, a bipartisan group of six senators introduced a new version of legislation to allow Afghan evacuees to adjust their status to lawful permanent residency. The proposal, known as the Afghan Adjustment Act, has been a focus of immigrant and veteran advocacy for months.

However, the bill faces an upward climb in the Senate, which has rejected a similar proposal before. The window is rapidly closing to pass substantive legislation before the close of this Congress at the end of the year.

In the meantime, advocates for Afghans who assisted the U.S. mission in Afghanistan in a variety of roles — and face risk under Taliban rule — worry that a future president’s actions could leave them vulnerable to deportation.

“It just sends a terrible message to our new Afghan allies — essentially saying, ‘Don’t get comfortable here, because this may not be home in the long term,’” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a resettlement group.

Long-standing issues

Even before Kabul fell to the Taliban on Aug. 15, 2021, nearly 20,000 special immigrant visa applicants were stuck in a labyrinthine application process that was averaging more than two years. A law requires that the application process take less than nine months.

The rapid collapse of the Afghan government prompted thousands of people to gather at the Kabul airport, fighting dense crowds to board an evacuation flight. In the subsequent days, the U.S. government evacuated more than 84,000 people.

The evacuation effort included SIV applicants and their immediate families, as well as other Afghans who had assisted the U.S. in various ways but didn’t qualify for SIVs under the program’s narrow requirements. Those groups include Afghans who served in their country’s armed forces as well as extended family members of SIV-eligible Afghans.

Most entered the U.S. under humanitarian parole, which allows noncitizens to enter the country without visas for pressing humanitarian reasons and stay for one or two years, depending on the parole term.

Over the next several months, Afghan evacuees lived on domestic U.S. military bases across the country before settling in American communities through the refugee resettlement process. In February, the Department of Homeland Security announced that the last evacuees had departed from their temporary housing on military bases.

But around 76,000 of the Afghans paroled into the U.S. lack a clear pathway to permanent legal status, according to estimates from the International Refugee Assistance Project. Although most are expected to be eligible for either special immigrant visas or asylum, those application processes can take years. And tens of thousands of Afghans are still stranded overseas.

The SIV program “has been beleaguered with dysfunction and delays that resulted in so many allies stuck in Afghanistan despite active, imminent threats to their lives,” said Susannah Cunningham, advocacy manager at LIRS during a press conference on Wednesday. “Neither of these programs will offer a speedy way for either people to get out of Afghanistan or to get status here — and their parole is running out.”

In total, there are around 74,000 principal Afghan SIV applicants in the pipeline both in the U.S. and overseas, DHS officials said last month. Meanwhile, the total asylum case backlog is more than 400,000.

Congressional debate

What began in Congress as a largely bipartisan effort to help Afghan allies of the U.S. later hit snags, when Republicans opposed Democratic plans to adjust the statuses of tens of thousands of paroled Afghans.

Lawmakers signed off on two large tranches of funding for Operation Allies Welcome, in the continuing resolution that passed last September, as well as another stopgap in December. But when the White House asked Congress to include the Afghan Adjustment Act in a Ukraine-focused supplemental spending bill this May, some Republicans said the security procedures were not stringent enough.

Several were concerned with a Defense Department inspector general report, released in February, which found that some Afghan evacuees had not been fully vetted using available department data and that a few dozen of those individuals could not be located.

In the bill introduced last week, the backers included an additional layer of security vetting for Afghans who hope to adjust their statuses, assuaging some hesitation from Republicans such as Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

“This legislation starts us down a road of creating a strong vetting program to protect our national security while allowing for Afghans who risked their lives for America to move forward in the process, and while determining what to do with other parolees we brought to the U.S. after our hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan,” Graham said in a news release.

Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., one of the first lawmakers to begin raising concern about Afghan SIV backlogs as the withdrawal date approached, said Congress should reach a solution before the parole term of some Afghans expires.

“A number of these Afghans are reaching the limit of their parole, and I certainly do not ever want to promote any type of illegal immigration or visa overstay,” Waltz said. “So that leaves these people, who stood and fought with us and can’t go back, in a very precarious position.”

Impact of delay

In the meantime, most Afghan evacuees settling into new homes, jobs and schools are unable to plan for a long-term future in the U.S. and continue to worry about family members still stranded in Afghanistan.

“The majority of these families don’t have any certainty about whether they can stay in the U.S. because of their tenuous legal status,” O’Mara Vignarajah said. “There is just so much stress and anxiety about whether they’ll be allowed to set down roots here.”

Advocates of the Afghan Adjustment Act stress that the move has precedent: similar laws were passed following refugee crises in other nations. After the Vietnam War, the U.S. allowed Vietnamese refugees to adjust their statuses, and they did the same for Cubans after the Cuban Revolution.

One former Afghan interpreter, known by the pseudonym Lucky, said at a press conference Wednesday that the uncertainty is weighing on his friends and family who are in the U.S. under humanitarian parole.

“I have friends and family who came here last year who are in very bad situations,” he said. “They are going through so much stress and concern about their visa status and the future of their family and children.”