Tens of thousands of Afghan evacuees who are expected to leave US military sites in the coming weeks to start new lives in communities across America will face an unresolved question: What legal status will I have here?
Because they entered the United States through a temporary legal process known as parole – not as traditional refugees or visa holders – many at-risk Afghans brought to America as a result of the rapid takeover of their country by the Taliban have no direct means of obtaining permanent residence.
Since mid-August, more than 55,000 Afghans have been relocated to the United States, according to figures from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) provided Wednesday. The department said it determined that 40% of evacuees were eligible for special immigrant visas because they had aided the U.S. war effort.
Between July and September, nearly 5,400 Afghans entered the United States on special immigrant visas, which allow beneficiaries and their spouses and children to become permanent residents, according to government data. DHS said other evacuees had pending special visa applications, but did not provide a number.
Unless Congress creates a legalization program for them, Afghan evacuees who are not eligible for special immigrant visas will likely have to apply for asylum and join more than 400,000 asylum seekers in the United States with pending requests, to obtain permanent status.
“We evacuated them here. We did it. It’s not very fair to force people to stay in this state of limbo, ”said Meredith Owen, policy director of Church World Service, one of nine national refugee resettlement groups in the United States.
The United States currently hosts 53,000 Afghans at eight national military sites, where they undergo vaccinations against measles, chickenpox, polio and COVID-19, according to DHS figures. The department announced this week that 49,000 evacuees had completed their vaccinations and were ready to leave after a 21-day waiting period recommended by public health officials.
More Afghans are also expected to arrive in the coming days, as the United States lifted a three-week hiatus on evacuation flights on Tuesday that was triggered by the detection of a handful of measles cases among the new arrivals. . There are currently 15,000 people evacuated to military bases in Europe and the Middle East, according to DHS data.
Through an interim funding bill that President Biden enacted last week, Congress made Afghan evacuees eligible for traditional refugee benefits, like Medicaid and cash assistance. But instead of allowing them to apply for permanent residence, as the Biden administration demanded, Congress created what is supposed to be an expedited asylum process.
Congress has asked the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to interview Afghan evacuees no later than 45 days after filing a refugee claim and generally render a final decision within 150 days.
But refugee resettlement officials have expressed concern that US officials may not be able to meet the deadlines, blocking Afghans in the pending asylum pipeline. Evacuees will also have difficulty finding lawyers to help them navigate the complicated asylum process and may not have the documents needed to win their case, officials said.
“Some families have destroyed documents on the basis of instructions from the US Embassy, knowing that these documents could constitute a death warrant if found by the Taliban. And of course, those are the same papers that are required to apply for asylum, ”Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, told CBS News.
To obtain asylum in the United States, applicants must prove that they have been persecuted or fear persecution in their country of origin because of their religion, race, nationality, their political opinions or their membership of a social group.
Quickly processing thousands of Afghan evacuee requests could prove to be a Herculean task for USCIS ‘800-person asylum officer corps, which is already reviewing 404,000 requests and screening thousands of migrants seeking relief. protection at the southern border each month.
In fiscal 2019, the latest with publicly available statistics, USCIS approved fewer than 28,000 asylum claims, including only 82 petitions filed by Afghans.
We do not know what would happen to Afghans who lose their asylum claim. If they no longer have parole, they could be placed in deportation proceedings, but the United States has not carried out a deportation flight to Afghanistan since late 2020.
USCIS did not respond to several questions about how it plans to speed up the processing of asylum claims from Afghan evacuees. The spending law signed by Biden last week gave USCIS $ 193 million in funding to support the treatment of Afghan allies.
Congress may still be able to put Afghan evacuees on the path to green card status, but it’s not clear whether enough Republican lawmakers would support creating a legalization program, even for a group of immigrants whose resettlement to the United States enjoys broad bipartisan support.
Refugee advocates are pushing lawmakers to include an Afghan legalization program in future legislation to be passed, including the National Defense Authorization Act or an omnibus spending bill.
In addition to questions about the legal status of the evacuees, relocation officials said they were also concerned about finding homes for tens of thousands of Afghans, especially in areas like northern California and the suburbs of Washington, DC, where affordable housing is limited.
Convincing landlords to rent to newcomers with no credit in the United States who don’t yet have a job has been a major challenge, relocation officials said.
California and Texas are expected to host the largest number of Afghans at risk, according to estimates the Biden administration provided to governors last month.
“In some ways it’s the calm before the storm,” said Vignarajah, the resettlement manager.