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Afghan evacuees brace for an uncertain anniversary

Humanitarian parole could run out for tens of thousands in late summer

Afghan families boarding a flight during evacuations at Hamid Karzai International Airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan, August, 2021 Associated Press/Photo by Sgt. Samuel Ruiz/U.S. Marine Corps, File

Afghan evacuees brace for an uncertain anniversary

Shahpur Pazhman misses the thrill of steering his helicopter through valleys and then pulling up sharply to climb a snowcapped mountain, taking in the arid beauty of Afghanistan from a bird’s eye view. The U.S. military trained him as a Black Hawk pilot for the Afghan air force.

He flew for the last time on August 13, 2021. Two days later, Taliban forces captured the capital city of Kabul.

“Everyone was trying to run,” he said. “Everyone was trying to get to the airport.” Some of Pazhman’s fellow pilots immediately flew across the border. But Pazhman had to find a way to get his family to safety—and fast. He knew the Taliban would come after him.

Stepping into the crowded Kabul airport was like stepping into another world. Children cried as people frantically hurried on to U.S. aircraft. It took Pazhman and his family several trips to the airport before enough spots opened up. As the C-17 transport plane hurtled down the runway, he closed his eyes to hold back the tears.“I couldn’t believe I’m leaving my country … all these memories behind,” he said.

Pazhman was one of about 76,000 Afghans evacuated to the United States after the fall of Kabul. The United States granted many Afghans with close relationships to the U.S. military or embassy Special Immigrant Visas, which put recipients on track for permanent residency. But not everyone who evacuated qualified for the visas or could get approved in time.

Instead, most were granted humanitarian parole, temporary protection for two years with no pathway to citizenship. Time is running out for Pazhman and more than 70,000 Afghans who do not have a route to permanent residency. Veterans and advocates are urging Congress to grant these evacuees a pathway to citizenship before their parole expires this September.

Afghans who are already in the United States do not qualify for refugee status. Refugees are vetted and approved to apply for permanent residency before they enter the United States, an often years-long process impossible for Afghans who fled their country in a matter of days or weeks. Shortly after the withdrawal, the Biden administration granted some refugee benefits to Afghan parolees through Operation Allies Welcome, but it did not include a possibility of permanent residence. Instead, Afghans on parole must join a yearslong backlog of asylum-seekers applying for permission to stay in the United States.

Laurence Benenson, the vice president of policy and advocacy for the National Immigration Forum, said most Afghan applicants qualify for asylum. But those who fled quickly may have been told to destroy needed documents to evade the Taliban. Others may have left them behind in haste. Now, they don’t have the evidence they need to prove they qualify for asylum.

The U.S. military evacuated Pazhman’s family to a camp at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. The family moved to Phoenix once they completed the vetting process. When they ache for the landscape of Afghanistan, they drive about two hours north to Sedona, Ariz., where the shape of the mountains remind them of home. Pazhman worries about not being able to work and support his family if his parole status expires before his asylum claim is approved.

Benenson said the administration likely will not deport any parolees back to Afghanistan. Most likely, the United States will extend their parole status—a short-term solution that “still just kind of kicks the can down the road,” he said.

The Afghan evacuation kick-started the Biden administration’s growing dependence on humanitarian parole. In April 2022, President Joe Biden unveiled Uniting for Ukraine, a private sponsorship program that allows recipients to stay in the United States for two years on parole. In January, the administration announced another two-year parole program to welcome up to 30,000 immigrants per month from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.

The president can extend parole through executive action. Last month Biden did just that for more than 20,000 Ukrainians who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border soon after the invasion.

Benenson said Temporary Protected Status provides another option for those on temporary parole. The Homeland Security secretary can designate temporary protection to foreign nationals if conditions in their home country make it impossible to return safely. The administration added Afghans living in the United States since March 15, 2022, to the TPS program. Afghan evacuees can pay a filing fee to switch to the program, but it is also a temporary status that will expire in November. The government regularly extends TPS for other countries and will most likely do so for Afghanistan, Benenson said.

“The easiest and cleanest thing is for Congress to pass an Afghan Adjustment Act and make this permanent,” Benenson said. An Afghan Adjustment Act would continue a tradition of legislating a path to citizenship for large immigrant groups after U.S.-involved conflicts or humanitarian crises. Congress adjusted Vietnamese refugees in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal and passed a similar act for immigrants who fled Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Multiple acts clarified pathways for evacuees following U.S. military operations in Iraq.

Congress nearly passed an Afghan Adjustment Act last year with bipartisan support, but opposition from at least one Republican senator ousted the measure from the omnibus spending bill. The act still has significant bipartisan support, and Benenson hopes to see it passed before Afghans’ parole period ends in September. But lawmakers will likely incorporate the measure into a large spending bill such as the National Defense Authorization Act that needs to pass before the end of the year, he said. This could drag it out further—and leave thousands of Afghan parolees unprotected for a few months.

“We haven’t really been in a circumstance where you have a two-year parole period and then there’s just inaction for this large of a group,” he said.

Jennie Murray, the president and CEO of the National Immigration Forum, said the evacuation highlighted the value of humanitarian parole as a necessary tool in a moment of crisis. “But I think what we’ve learned from this is that in doing so, there needs to also be adjustment already factored into the scenario,” she said.

Veterans and nonprofits also urge the act’s passage.

Khalil A. Arab is the SIV and allies program manager for Combined Arms, an organization serving returning veterans and Afghan allies. Arab said U.S. veterans feel betrayed by their country’s haphazard exit from Afghanistan, and many put their lives on the line to help their Afghan allies get out. “It was the U.S. government who needed to act,” he said, “but they had to step up.” Now veterans want to see their Afghan friends have a chance to make the United States their permanent home.

When Arab arrived in the United States from Afghanistan on a Special Immigrant Visa in 2019, he immediately received a green card and Social Security number in the mail. “I could plan the next five years of my life,” he said, “Those allies who were evacuated … cannot do that.”

With no access to permanent residency, Afghan parolees often cannot get the credentials and clearance they need to continue their careers in their field of training. An immigrant assistance organization called Upwardly Global helped Pazhman find work at the Scottsdale Airport in Arizona as a flight line technician. “I’m surrounded by aircrafts,” he said. “I’m happy with that, but I hope I can fly again here in the United States.” Immigration officials told him it could take up to two months before they heard anything about his family’s asylum case. So far, it’s been about eight. Their parole expires in September.

Addie Offereins

Addie is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty fighting and immigration. She is a graduate of Westmont College and the World Journalism Institute. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, Ben.

You sure do come up with exciting stuff to read, know, and talk about. —Chad

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