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Tens of thousands of Afghans in U.S. could lose deportation protections unless Congress acts

Afghans struggling to recover from war
The legacy of a 20-year war in Afghanistan: Many Afghans are still struggling to recover 03:27

Washington — Tens of thousands of Afghan refugees who were evacuated to the U.S. after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 2021 are at risk of losing their work permits and deportation protections this summer unless Congress acts, unpublished government data show.

Fewer than 5,000 of the 77,000 Afghans resettled in the U.S. under a special legal process have secured permanent legal status for themselves and their families, with efforts to make them permanent residents floundering in Congress, according to the Department of Homeland Security figures.

As of Feb. 12, the U.S. had approved just 4,775 applications from Afghan evacuees who requested asylum or a special visa status for those who aided American forces. Those who lack permanent legal status could lose their authorization to work and live in the U.S. legally starting in July without congressional intervention.

Despite significant bipartisan support, a proposal to make evacuated Afghans eligible for permanent U.S. residency, known as the Afghan Adjustment Act, has failed to make its way through Congress, mainly due to concerns from some Republican lawmakers over how the evacuees were vetted.

The evacuees who lack permanent status were initially granted "parole," a special immigration classification that allows foreign citizens to enter the U.S. without a visa and to stay in the country temporarily on humanitarian or public interest grounds — two years, in the case of the Afghans.

Refugees are led through the departure terminal to a bus at Dulles International Airport after being evacuated from Kabul following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan on Aug. 31, 2021, in Dulles, Virginia.
Refugees are led through the departure terminal to a bus at Dulles International Airport after being evacuated from Kabul following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan on Aug. 31, 2021, in Dulles, Virginia. Getty Images

By using the parole authority, the Biden administration was able to resettle tens of thousands of Afghans in a matter of weeks following the chaotic military withdrawal from Afghanistan without having to go through the traditional refugee or visa processes, which typically take years to complete. 

But the reliance on parole to resettle evacuees — who, for practical purposes, were refugees intent on restarting their lives in the U.S. — also meant their future would be dictated by lawmakers' willingness, or unwillingness, to give them permanent status. Unlike refugee status, parole does not offer a path to U.S. citizenship.

In all, the U.S. used parole to admit more than 77,000 Afghans as part of the massive resettlement effort, dubbed Operation Allies Welcome. The U.S. stopped the practice in late September 2022, when it launched a new phase of the effort under which future Afghan arrivals would come to the U.S. with permanent status.    

In similar situations over the past decades, Congress passed laws to give permanent residency to different refugee groups who entered the U.S. via parole, including Hungarians escaping Soviet rule, Cubans fleeing the communist-controlled island and refugees from Southeast Asia after the Vietnam War.

But the Afghan Adjustment Act has been caught up in a broader, decades-long gridlock over immigration policy in Congress that has intensified amid record levels of migrant arrivals along the U.S.-Mexico border. 

While the proposal had five Democratic and five Republican co-sponsors in the Senate in the last Congress, some Republicans have expressed opposition to the bill, citing government watchdog reports that raised questions about whether federal officials had adequate policies in place when they screened evacuees.

The Biden administration has insisted it properly vetted all Afghans at overseas military bases before relocating them to the U.S. Proponents of the Afghan Adjustment Act have also said the measure should assuage concerns about vetting since evacuees would need to undergo interviews to receive U.S. residency. 

Afghans and their advocates, which include military veterans, said the need to pass the adjustment act is becoming increasingly urgent, with the first Afghan parole expirations set to occur in July. For the majority of evacuees, their parole will expire later in the summer, after the two-year anniversary of the fall of Kabul.

"Those deadlines hang over their heads," said Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, which has helped resettle some 14,000 Afghans. "They don't know if they will be placed in removal proceedings or if they will be able to support themselves or their families back home."

Edris Lutfi, who was paroled into the U.S. in October 2021 after fleeing Afghanistan, called it "extremely frustrating" to not know whether he will be able to continue working and living in the U.S. legally later this year. Returning to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, he said, is not an option.

"There are so many killings of civilians," said Lutfi, who noted he worked for the former U.S.-aligned government in Afghanistan. "The situation there is a lot worse than what we see on the media. People are starving. There's no work. The Taliban is policing every single aspect of everyone's life."

On paper, those who are granted parole can request an extension. But there's no formal process for Afghans to do so, since they were paroled at airports by Customs and Border Protection, a law enforcement agency that does not adjudicate applications. CBP policy says those seeking parole extensions should "contact the Port of Entry where the parole was granted." 

Amid the inaction in Congress, some Afghans like Lutfi have applied for different immigration programs in hopes of getting permanent status.

As of Feb. 12, more than 14,000 Afghans brought to the U.S. under Operation Allies Welcome had applied for asylum, which the government can grant to foreigners who could be persecuted in their home countries. The U.S. has so far approved 1,175 of these cases, which can include children and spouses of the main applicant.

The U.S. has also received another 14,600 applications from Afghans seeking permanent residency through the Special Immigrant Visa program, which allows translators, interpreters and others who served the American military to stay in the U.S. with their spouses and children. Just over 3,600 cases have been approved so far.

In 2022, the Biden administration made Afghan evacuees eligible for Temporary Protected Status, a program that allows immigrants from crisis-stricken countries to live and work in the U.S. legally for 18 months. But as of early February, just over 1,000 Afghans were enrolled in the program, according to unpublished DHS data. Moreover, like parole, TPS does not give beneficiaries a path to permanent legal status. 

Immigration lawyers said it's unrealistic to expect all Afghans to gain permanent status without an adjustment act. They said some Afghans may not be able to satisfy the strict criteria for asylum or special visas. Many evacuees, they added, may not be able to find lawyers to help them file applications given how overwhelmed legal services providers are. Others may not even know they need to apply for benefits in the first place.

"We have more people calling us than we are able to help, and they're calling from all around the country," said Laila Ayub, an attorney at Project ANAR, a Bay Area group with four staff members that has received dozens of inquiries from Afghans seeking counsel. "There are just not enough lawyers to help every single person."

Lutfi, the Afghan evacuee, was interviewed by an asylum officer last month and is awaiting a decision on his case. He's currently living in northern Virginia and working as a journalist. Even if he wins asylum, Lutfi said he's concerned about other evacuees who don't speak English and lack the means to secure legal help.

"If these bills aren't passed, at the end of day some of these people may have to be forced to go back. And once they do, I can't imagine what could happen to them," Lutfi added, referring to the Afghan Adjustment Act.

Advocates said only the passage of the Afghan Adjustment Act will give all Afghans relocated to the U.S. long-term stability. Lawmakers are expected to re-introduce the bill in the coming weeks, according to people familiar with the plan, but its prospects in an increasingly divided Congress remain unclear.

"It's a no-brainer," said Chris Purdy, an Iraq war veteran who oversees the Veterans for American Ideals branch of Human Rights First, a group that advocates for refugees. "We brought them here. We have an obligation to help them resettle properly and efficiently."

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