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Amid inaction in Congress, some Afghan evacuees place their hope in U.S. asylum system

More than 17,400 Afghan evacuees brought to the U.S. under a temporary legal authority have filed applications for asylum or special visa status amid Congress' failure to pass a law that would allow them to request permanent residency directly, according to unpublished government statistics shared with CBS News.

After the abrupt collapse of Afghanistan's government in August 2021, the U.S. scrambled to evacuate tens of thousands of American citizens and residents, third-country nationals and Afghans deemed to be at risk under Taliban rule, including because of their connection to America's 20-year mission in the country.

Due to the hurried evacuations, however, the vast majority of Afghan evacuees who were resettled in the U.S. did not arrive with completed immigration cases or a path to permanent legal status. Instead, U.S. officials granted them parole, a temporary authorization to enter and live in the U.S. on humanitarian grounds, after they underwent some security vetting at military bases in the Middle East and Europe.

In all, more than 88,000 Afghans evacuated last summer or flown out of Afghanistan in subsequent months on State Department-assisted flights have arrived in the U.S. over the past year, according to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) data, which show that nearly 90% of evacuees were granted parole for two years.

Since last year, the Biden administration has urged Congress to allow these Afghans to apply for permanent residency, or a green card. In August, a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the Senate and House introduced the Afghan Adjustment Act, which would render evacuees eligible for green cards after additional vetting.

But efforts to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act have faltered due to opposition from some congressional Republicans, who have questioned whether the evacuees were properly vetted. Republicans have also vowed not to pursue "amnesty" for immigrants if they retake control of the House after the November midterms.

Flights For Afghan Evacuees Resume At Ramstein Air Base
Evacuees from Afghanistan drop off their luggage to board a passenger plane bound for the U.S. at the U.S. military's Ramstein air base on October 09, 2021 in Ramstein, Germany. Lukas Schulze / Getty Images

Amid the gridlock in Congress, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has received over 8,200 asylum requests from Afghan evacuees as of Oct. 2, according to the unpublished DHS data. The number represents a larger group of evacuees since asylum applicants often include spouses and children in their cases.

While Congress in 2021 required USCIS to process asylum requests from Afghan evacuees within five months, most cases remain unresolved. As of Oct. 2, 460 asylum petitions from Afghans had been approved and two had been rejected, representing a 99% approval rate for completed cases, the DHS data show. 

In addition to the asylum requests, USCIS has received over 9,200 green card requests from Afghan evacuees who qualify for a special immigrant visa because of their assistance to the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan, government figures show. As of Oct. 2, USCIS had granted over 1,500 of these cases and rejected 17. 

While the government statistics show that a significant number of evacuated Afghans have applied for asylum and special immigrant visa status, both of which allow them to secure U.S. residency and a path to citizenship, they also illustrate that the vast majority of evacuees continue to live in the U.S. with the tenuous and temporary parole classification more than a year after the start of the evacuations.

Advocates for Afghan evacuees, including U.S military veterans, have urged Congress to create a streamlined process for Afghans in the U.S. to apply for green cards directly. They've noted that Congress has repeatedly legalized refugee groups brought to the U.S. since the second half of the 20th century, including Hungarians fleeing Soviet repression, Cuban exiles and certain refugees from Southeast Asia following the fall of Saigon.

"This would be the first Congress not to pass such a bill. There's precedent for this," said Shawn VanDiver, a Navy veteran and president of the AfghanEvac coalition, which helped evacuate at-risk Afghans. "These folks stood with us. Afghans stood with us for 20 years. We made promises that these folks would be able to come to realize the American dream."

There are ongoing talks among lawmakers to try to include the Afghan Adjustment Act in future must-pass legislation, such as a government spending bill, congressional officials said. But the officials conceded the effort faces an uphill battle amid enduring opposition from many Republican lawmakers.

Sen. Rob Portman, a retiring moderate Republican from Ohio, said it was clear to him that the Biden administration did not adequately vet the tens of thousands of Afghans brought to the U.S., citing a series of government watchdog reports that found officials lacked critical data during the evacuee screening process.

"While I do support the resettlement of Afghan evacuees who stood with us or our allies in battle, I do not support the Afghan Adjustment Act because it relies on the judgment of DHS on whether its screening of the more than 30,000 non-partner evacuees was adequate enough to give them a fast track to citizenship," Portman told CBS News.

In separate reports, the inspectors general at the Pentagon and DHS found deficiencies in the vetting of Afghans, including unreliable or insufficient data and the admission of some evacuees with red flags. DHS has contested the findings, saying the U.S. reviewed biographic and biometric data from all evacuees 14 and older.

Rahmat Gul Safi, an Afghan refugee and a former Afghan soldier who worked alongside American troops, carries his son Rahimudin, 3, on his back after the family went to collect free back-to-school supplies organized by the Des Moines Refugee Support. Marcus Yam

Democrats and advocates have argued the Afghan Adjustment Act would alleviate concerns over vetting since it would require the government to interview and screen evacuees before giving them a green card.

"This bipartisan legislation will give Afghans who go through additional vetting a green card so that they can build a life here in the United States," said Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who introduced the adjustment act in the Senate. She was joined by Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Roy Blunt of Missouri and Lisa Murkowski and Democrats Chris Coons of Delaware and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.

A GOP aide for the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, where Portman sits as ranking member, said Republicans also believe the Afghan Adjustment Act "is not necessary" because of the expedited asylum adjudication time frame Congress required for Afghans who don't qualify for special visas.

But advocates said requiring tens of thousands of Afghans to file asylum applications would be detrimental to the evacuees, the government and legal services communities, given the persistent challenges the USCIS asylum program has faced for years, including its current workload of over 500,000 unresolved cases.

Afghan evacuees, advocates said, would face significant hurdles finding pro-bono or low-cost lawyers to help them navigate the complicated asylum process. Many evacuees may also not be able to prove they merit asylum, including because they don't have documents to plead their case, the advocates said. 

"We, in civil society, who were trying to help people save their own lives, told them, 'destroy everything,'" said Jill Marie Bussey, director of public policy at the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, referring to instructions some Afghans received to avoid Taliban reprisals as they attempted to flee.

U.S. law requires asylum applicants to prove they were persecuted, or have a well-founded fear of persecution, in their home country because of their race, nationality, religion, politics or membership in a social group.

While the U.S. is currently not conducting regular deportations to Afghanistan, asylum-seekers who lose their cases could be placed in deportation proceedings before the Justice Department, which is overseeing another nearly 2 million pending immigration cases.

"Why would we put more pressure on the system and re-traumatize people?" Bussey asked.

While the Biden administration made Afghans eligible for work permits and deportation protections under a Temporary Protected Status designation, the policy, like parole, does not offer a path to permanent status.

Daryaa, an Arizona State University student who was evacuated from Afghanistan and brought to the U.S. last year alongside other female college students, is one of the thousands of evacuees who have applied for asylum.

The 22-year-old evacuee, who asked for her name to be changed due to her pending asylum request, said she's grateful to be in the U.S. After living at a military base in Wisconsin alongside thousands of fellow evacuated Afghans last year, Daryaa received a scholarship to continue her college studies in Arizona.

But Daryaa said her legal status in the U.S. has been a constant concern, noting she's anxious to receive a response on her asylum case. The thought of being forced to return to Afghanistan haunts her, she said, highlighting the plight of women living under strict Taliban rules that systematically exclude women and girls from many aspects of public life, including education

"If I go back to Afghanistan, my life will be in danger because the Taliban already have the list of the educated girls in Afghanistan," she said. "That's why I request the government to take action as soon as possible."

Daryaa and Frankie Allegra-Garofalo, a lawyer at the Milbank LLP law firm who is representing her, pose for a photo after Daryaa finished her asylum interview in Phoenix, Arizona.

Daryaa said she also worries about her parents and siblings in Afghanistan, especially because her brother worked in the military of the former U.S.-aligned government in Kabul. Her sisters, she said, often tell her they are sad because they can't work, study or make their own decisions, including on what clothing to wear.

"If I go back to Afghanistan," Daryaa said, "I would feel the same."

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