The 76,000 Afghans who were airlifted out of their country and relocated to the US last year have made a fresh start in the US But they have no guarantee of staying unless Congress passes legislation that would offer a pathway to the legal status for the Afghans who were forced to flee.
Evacuees and their allies are holding a day of action on Thursday to push for lawmakers to include legal status for Afghans in the US as part of a broader budget bill that largely focuses on relief for Ukraine.
President Joe Biden called for including Afghans in the legislation, and some lawmakers have voiced their support.
But Numerous attempts to include this version of the measure, called the Afghan Adjustment Act, have failed due to objects from the Senate Republicans. If it’s omitted again, Afghans who were welcomed by the US when it pulled out of their country, leaving the Taliban to take over, will be left to fend for themselves here.
The two main options for long-term protection available to Afghans are asylum and special immigrant status – both complicated, potentially costly and uncertain processes.
“I can’t even plan my life and business for more than a year here,” Maryam Yousufi, a journalist and entrepreneur who is now settled in Washington, DC, said in an interview.
Yousufi was a well-known face in the Afghan media, having worked with many local and international platforms, including the US-funded Voice of America. She started a small business designing and selling traditional luxury Afghan clothing to local and international consumers only a year before Kabul fell.
“You have life, you have family and you have business, and all of a sudden you have to leave all of them behind to seek protection somewhere else,” Yousufi said.
Yousufi is working to restart her business after months of struggling to settle down in the US She had some of her products shipped to the US and is now looking to register her brand here. “This is a new beginning for me, and I’m excited about it,” she said.
Now she just needs to ensure she can continue.
Temporary Protection Is Running Out
The protection for Yousufi is just temporary. Last August, the Biden administration used a measure known as the humanitarian password to allow Afghans to enter the US for a two-year period. Password status is not recognized as an immigration status, and there is no road to permanent residency for those who enter the country on a password.
Since the password status is temporary, these Afghans must adjust their status – which means obtaining a green card, asylum or some other visa – in order to stay long-term and avoid possible deportation.
“The worst-case scenario for Afghans is unable to adjust their status is that the current temporary protection options expire and they are unable to find another pathway, ”said Sarah Ivory, president of USAHello, a nonprofit working for refugees. “In this case, they would become undocumented and risk deportation.”
The Biden administration announced in March the designation of temporary protected status, or TPS, for any Afghans residing in the US as of March 15. This protects Afghan parolees from having to return to unsafe conditions – but it would only extend the temporary protection and does not guarantee permanent residency.
Permanent residency and eventual citizenship do not just protect people from deportation. It would also allow them to apply to bring relatives to the US, something many Afghans are desperate to do.
“My wife and children are in danger [in Afghanistan]and I want to bring them over as soon as possible, ”Sultanzai, who requested that his full name not be used for security concerns, said.
Sultanzai is a former member of the Afghan security forces who worked closely with the American forces in eastern Afghanistan for eight years until 2018. He was flown to the US last August and now lives in the DC area.
The Sultanai has been on the Taliban’s “kill list” for years, and many of his comrades have been ruthlessly killed in recent years. Rather than endangering his family’s safety on the road to Kabul, he ventured out alone to see if he could track down his former superiors first and get his loved ones on a flight out later. He was able to get into the airport, but was immediately boarded on a flight. It was too late to help his family.
He recalled someone telling him during boarding, “Save yourself first, then bring your family later.”
But he’s not sure how to do it. One of the ways that Afghan parolees are able to adjust their status to a more permanent status is through the special immigrant visa (SIV) program. Evacuees who apply to be employed for at least one year by an approved entity and also receive a letter from their supervisor in support.
“I feel abandoned and confused,” Sultanzai said. He got his American supervisors guaranteed him an SIV when he worked with them. He has enough certificates and photos to prove that he worked with the Americans, but he is unable to obtain a letter of support from them because he has been out of his post for several years and he lost his contacts.
“They all vanished, no email address, no phone number,” Sultanzai said. His inability to communicate in English also prevents him from reaching out to others who may assist him.
Many Afghans are currently in various stages of obtaining an SIV and are unsure of their next steps.
Yousufi would also like to pursue SIV status based on her work with Voice of America. But she has only received her initial approval after four months and has yet to file a petition.
The program has a backlog of tens of thousands of applications, making it even more difficult for SIV applicants to adjust their status in time, especially those who have recently applied to the program.
Those who do not qualify for the SIV program must petition for asylum.
Navigating The Asylum System
The majority of Afghan parolees have only four months left to file an asylum petition, which is currently the only option for them now to adjust their status. All asylum seekers must apply within one year of their last entry into the US
SIV applicants are also considering applying for asylum during these next four months because there has been no progress on their application and they don’t want to wait any longer.
“I don’t want to risk waiting to hear from SIV,” said Yousufi. She has only a few months left to find legal help, prepare documents and submit her petitions.
But like the SIV program, the asylum system is extremely backlogged, demanding and hard to navigate. There was already a 400,000-case backlog of asylum applications before the arrival of this wave of Afghans in the US
“Asylum is a very high threshold to meet,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a group that aids refugees and migrants.
The petitioner must have enough documentation to prove that they are personally at risk of persecution if they were to return to their home country. These documents may not be available to Afghans who had to pass through the Taliban checkpoints on their way out of the country.
“Some [asylum-seekers] may have even destroyed documents that would be helpful in an asylum proceeding, but a death sentence in the hands of the Taliban. ”
– Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, President and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service
“Some may even have destroyed documents that would be helpful in an asylum proceeding, but a death sentence in the hands of the Taliban,” Vignarajah said.
Navigating the asylum process in the US is nearly impossible without the assistance of an immigration lawyer. There aren’t enough pro bono lawyers to help the tens of thousands of Afghans in such a short time. Plus, most Afghans do not have the financial resources to pay thousands of dollars in legal fees.
“Their cases could be rejected,” Ivory said. “Especially if they don’t have legal support in putting together their petition.”
For Afghans like Sultanzai who lack English skills, navigating the process could be even harder. Many Afghans are unaware that they must apply for asylum before it is too late. The resettlement agencies that assisted Afghans in filing for basic resettlement needs such as housing and food programs only offer support for 90 days. The rest is on them.
Sultanai has not been able to find legal support yet. “I don’t even know what to do next,” he said.
The Legislative Solution
Biden called on Congress last week to pass legislation that would help Afghan parolees to adjust their status as part of his request for emergency funding for Ukraine. Refugee groups urged their members to call representatives and share their stories on Thursday to push for Congress to include them in the funding.
“We need everyone across our country calling into their representatives and senators to ask them to include this in the Ukrainian supplement,” Shawn VanDiver, the founder and board chair of AfghanEvac, a coalition of organizations helping at-risk Afghans relocate and resettle, told HuffPost. “This is the shot we have. There won’t be another opportunity until 2023 and neither Afghans or the veterans who they stood with can wait that long. We need this to happen now and we need folks on both sides to not play partisan games. ”
Advocacy groups have been urging Congress to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act for months as a way out of the limbo in which Afghans find themselves. If passed, this would give Afghan parolees a direct route to lawful permanent residency, bypassing all other options, including SIV and asylum.
“The Afghan Adjustment Act would create a fast track for Afghans that would acknowledge that, by virtue of their evacuation and the events that have unfolded, they already meet the standards for humanitarian protection,” Ivory said.
Advocates hope the White House’s latest request will help.
“This request is a promising sign for the legislation’s chances of passing,” Vignarajah said.“We remain hopeful that Congressional leaders are both sides of the aisle to recognize the urgency and moral imperative to do right by those who fought and served alongside us in Afghanistan.”
But sources in the Senate told HuffPost that numerous attempts to include this version of the Afghan Adjustment Act have failed due to objections from the Senate Republicans.
“Given that, its future is uncertain in the supplement as well,” said one staffer, who requested anonymity to discuss the situation. “We shall see.”