Afghan evacuees who have been living in the United States since August 2021 will soon reach the end of their temporary two-year stay.
Unless Congress acts, they could be deported back to Afghanistan — where they would face the wrath of the Taliban.
The Afghan Adjustment Act, introduced last August by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), would have established a pathway for permanent residence for Afghans in the U.S., but party leaders left it out of must-pass spending bills that seemed like its best chance at becoming law late last year.
“If this bill had been brought to the floor, it would have passed.” Safi Rauf, a U.S. war veteran and president of Human First Coalition, an organization lobbying for the bill, told HuffPost.
To win over Republican senators, Rauf traveled to red states in October and November with a group of other veterans. Republicans complained that evacuees had not been thoroughly vetted and posed security risks to the country. After additional vetting measures had been added to the bill, Republicans were mostly on board, Rauf said. Two additional Republicans — Sens. Jerry Moran (Kan.) and Roger Wicker (Miss.) — signed on as co-sponsors in December as a result of the changes.
Graham told HuffPost this week that the bill would be introduced again, but he hadn’t yet discussed it with the other co-sponsors.
The bill’s supporters hope to have it reintroduced in the Senate and the House as soon as March. Rauf said that the bill’s passage is now less about security concerns and more a question of when and if party leaders feel like advancing the legislation.
“It’s just a matter of time,” Rauf said. But he hopes that Congress will recognize the urgency of the situation this time because most of the evacuees’ temporary status will expire as early as August.
Following the fall of Kabul amid the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, the U.S. government used a policy known as humanitarian parole to bring Afghans who aided American forces and who feared Taliban retaliation onto American territory. But humanitarian parole does not provide a route to permanent residence.
For most Afghan evacuees, the expiration of parole would mean that they are at immediate risk of losing their work permit with no obvious way to extend it because they cannot change their status through established pathways like asylum quickly enough. In the long run, the worst-case scenario would be deportation back to Afghanistan.
“The stakes are much higher than they were before,” Rauf said.
According to unpublished DHS data reported by CBS News, only 4,775 applications from Afghan evacuees seeking asylum or a special visa status had been granted as of Feb. 12 compared to the approximately 80,000 Afghans who have resettled in the U.S. since August 2021.
The asylum route to legal permanent residency takes a long time because of the backlog of applications. Most applicants have not heard back in months after filing.
DHS data shows that, as of Feb. 12, more than 14,000 Afghans had filed for asylum, but only 1,175 of those requests had been approved, according to CBS News.
The process is also complicated and costly, as it requires legal services and there are not enough volunteer attorneys to help with the volume of cases. There is little assurance that all the asylum cases will be eventually approved because, according to Rauf, about half of the 80,000 evacuees could lack necessary documentation and thus be unable to adjust their status.
The situation is no better for Afghan evacuees who are eligible for a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV), which mostly comprises translators, interpreters and others who served in the American military. DHS has received 14,600 SIV applications from those already in the U.S., but only about 3,600 have been accepted thus far.
The Biden administration granted Afghan evacuees temporary protected status, which is given to individuals who cannot safely return to their home countries due to conflict. While that policy temporarily safeguards them from deportation, it does not automatically create a pathway to permanent residency in the U.S. Just over 1,000 Afghans were enrolled in the program as of early February.
“The bottom line is we can’t send them back,” Rauf said, “because the situation of Afghanistan gets worse every day.”
A Human Rights Watch report reveals that despite the Taliban’s declaration of amnesty, the group has executed or forcibly disappeared more than 100 former members of the Afghan National Security Forces.
Arthur Delaney contributed reporting.