Afghan evacuees not guaranteed permanence in U.S.
Advocates call for a new legal pathway for evacuees making asylum applications
Yalda Royan, an Afghan women’s rights activist, loaded paperwork in a backpack and fled to the Kabul airport in August 2020 as the Taliban overran her country. After more than eight hours outside the airport gates, two nights sleeping on the ground while waiting for a flight, and stops in Kuwait, Bahrain, and Bulgaria, Royan and her two daughters arrived at an airport outside Washington, D.C.
Now they are waiting to hear whether they can stay in the United States.
Most Afghan evacuees have left the U.S. military bases and begun resettlement across the country, but thousands remain in legal limbo. Many must apply for asylum if they want to remain in the United States permanently, and it is possible not all of them will qualify. Immigration lawyers and refugee resettlement groups are urging Congress to pass an exception to grant permanent residency to Afghans who fled when the Taliban took over.
About 76,000 Afghans have entered the United States since August. Most were granted humanitarian parole, allowing them to stay in the country legally and hold jobs for two years. Those who can prove they worked for the U.S. military or its contractors can receive permanent residency through Special Immigrant Visas. In December, the Department of Homeland Security reported 36,821 of the then-70,000 arrivals had applied for SIVs. Others qualified as refugees, worked for U.S. companies, or had other paths to a green card.
But 36,433 Afghan evacuees lacked those pathways, according to the DHS report, and must apply for asylum to stay in the country. According to Syracuse University, the United States has 1.6 million pending asylum cases, and the average applicant waits nearly five years for a hearing. Congress ordered U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to prioritize Afghan applicants, interviewing them within 45 days of application and deciding cases within about 150 days.
Applicants must prove they have a reasonable fear of persecution if returned to their home country. Shane Ellison, supervising attorney at Duke University’s immigration law clinic, said an application can have 500 pages of supporting evidence, and some at Duke’s clinic have neared 2,000 pages. With students, he’s helping 10 families apply for asylum and writing document templates to speed up other applications.
With the help of a lawyer found by her employer, VOICE Amplified, Royan spent two months preparing her asylum application. In December, she spent nearly eight hours answering an officer’s questions about her background, family, and political affiliations. Afterward, Royan barely left the corner of her sofa for a week, traumatized by reliving painful memories, she said. Since then she’s been waiting to hear if her application will be approved.
In Afghanistan, Royan had packed identity documents, diplomas, and other paperwork, but with Afghan courthouses closed, she couldn’t pick up a custody document for her daughters and doesn’t know where it is now. She said many Afghans had similar problems retrieving documents since embassies and government buildings shut down for COVID-19 and because of the Taliban’s advance. Some destroyed documents, fearing Taliban retaliation for connections to the United States.
“There are a lot of people who even did not have passports, they did not have national ID cards, so everything will be a problem,” Royan said. “If we are going back, what will happen? Will it help the country? Will it help us? It will just add to the catastrophe.”
Parastoo Zahedi, a co-chair of the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s Afghan task force, said Afghans who paid Taliban members fees to process passports or other documents could potentially be denied for providing material assistance to terrorists. (She did not know whether USCIS had already issued any asylum decisions, and the agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
Immigration lawyers and refugee resettlement groups say Congress should give Afghan evacuees a new option. The United States has previously allowed Cubans, Vietnamese, Iraqis, and other allies seeking refuge to switch from parolee status to permanent residency, bypassing asylum applications. It could do the same for Afghan evacuees through standalone legislation or by tacking the measure onto a budget resolution. No such bill has been introduced in Congress, but Religion News Service reported Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., in the House and three Democrats in the Senate plan to sponsor one.
Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service has spoken with members of Congress about the idea, loosely known as an “Afghan Adjustment Act.” Organization spokesman Timothy Young said the group believes Republican lawmakers are considering co-sponsoring the proposed bill, although negotiations are unfinished.
The organization’s president, Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, said she hadn’t heard any opposition to the idea in Congress yet. She said such legislation would give Afghans stable legal status, a boost as they sign leases and look for jobs.
“If we had done right by our allies, they would have received Special Immigrant Visas, visas, or refugee status to come into the country,” O’Mara Vignarajah said. “We shouldn’t penalize them for the hurried nature of the evacuation.”
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