AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib
- Newly arrived Afghans to the US are on a temporary legal status that’s set to expire next year.
- Advocates are urging Congress to ensure a pathway to permanent residency for Afghan allies.
- Congress is expected to recess for the holidays. The GOP will then assume the House majority.
As tens of thousands of newly arrived Afghans to the United States are trapped in legal limbo, Congress can take a crucial step to alleviate that stress – and should do so immediately.
That’s been the rallying cry of veterans groups, community activists, faith leaders, resettlement agencies, and immigration organizations for months. The coalition has been advocating for Democrats and Republicans to ensure a pathway to permanent residency for these Afghans, many of whom served alongside American troops in the 20-year war in Afghanistan before the Taliban seized power in August 2021.
The US has welcomed more than 88,500 Afghans since then, and a majority of them were granted a temporary legal status known as humanitarian parole. But that protection is set to expire in 2023, leaving Afghan evacuees to navigate America’s complex and slow-moving immigration system to seek permanent residency – a process that could take years, or possibly decades, with no guarantee.
The Afghan Adjustment Act, legislation introduced over the summer by bipartisan groups in the House and Senate, would change the legal status of Afghan evacuees to permanent residency, providing them with certainty to start their new lives and work in the US without the risk of deportation.
The urgency to pass the bill is greater than ever as Congress takes its final legislative sprint before lawmakers leave for the holidays, and the incoming House Republican majority is unlikely to consider the issue, advocates say.
“It’s the final call. This is crunch time. And this is when we can get this done,” said Safi Rauf, a Navy reservist and Afghan American who’s been leading efforts to advance the bill. “It’s a matter of national security. It’s a matter of moral injury for our veterans. And it’s just the right thing to do.”
Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC).
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Convincing Republican senators
The House version of the Afghan Adjustment Act has 143 co-sponsors, including 10 Republicans. But the problem for advocates lies in the evenly divided Senate, where 60 votes are needed to advance legislation.
Rauf and advocates have demonstrated outside the US Capitol since September, standing “firewatch,” demanding Congress to act. For five weeks in the fall, the so-called firewatch hit the road. Rauf, along with his brother, Zabih, and veterans Matt Zeller and James Powers, drove more than 7,600 miles cross-country to pitch the Afghan Adjustment Act to senators.
Advocates say they’re not worried about Democratic votes and are seeking more GOP support. Five Republicans senators have endorsed the measure. One of the latest co-sponsors, Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, pledged his support on Wednesday.
“Veterans of the Afghan War are now calling for Congress to provide safety and certainty for their allies and friends who assisted them in battle,” Moran said in a statement. “We must answer that call and establish a pathway for our Afghan partners to begin a new life in the United States.”
Rauf, who met with Moran’s office in Kansas, hopes the news will encourage other Republicans “to look at the bill critically and decide whether they support veterans or that’s only a talking point for them at rallies.”
Advocates need five more votes. Among the GOP members they’re trying to convince include Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Mitt Romney of Utah, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, John Cornyn of Texas, Richard Shelby of Alabama, Ben Sasse and Deb Fischer of Nebraska, and Mike Crapo and Jim Risch of Idaho, according to Zeller.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, an original sponsor of the bill, said he’s “hoping” action will take place soon.
“We have a moral obligation as a nation to do something within reason to deal with the folks that we brought here,” the South Carolina Republican said. “I’m not gonna turn my back on them.”
“I think this is not the last war we’re going to be in,” he continued, “And how you treat these people determines a lot about how we will go forward as a nation in other conflicts.”
Republicans against the bill say they’re concerned about the vetting of Afghan evacuees, pointing to government watchdog reports that found some gaps in the process. A major opponent to the measure is Sen. Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, which deals with immigration matters.
But the bill’s supporters say the criticisms are baseless because passing the Afghan Adjustment Act would actually address any national security concerns: Afghan evacuees were already screened before they arrived, and the legislation requires them to undergo additional, rigorous vetting before they apply for permanent legal residency.
“There really actually isn’t a very good reason to oppose this bill,” Zeller said, “Other than that the people who are against it often are against all matters of immigration.”
Another key argument made by advocates to foster GOP support is the “moral injury to veterans” – American soldiers, not just their Afghan allies, are being negatively impacted by Congress’ inaction.
“This is very much an issue where both American and Afghan American or Afghan lives are at stake,” said Shawn VanDiver, a veteran who founded AfghanEvac, a nonprofit composed of 200 groups dedicated to helping Afghan allies. “We’ve seen people take their own lives over this. We’ve seen the crushing loss that has come, and it’s really easy to just do the right thing here.”
Still, it’s been a “challenge” to secure congressional support for the Afghan Adjustment Act, VanDiver said.
“It’s just a matter of priority, right?” VanDiver said. “There’s no monied interests behind Afghan refugees, so there’s no big lobby in favor of them. There’s no massive army of well-paid folks. Nobody showed up on buses. It’s all people power, it’s all veterans, working families, anybody who’s worked with Afghans, or Afghans themselves, organizing to do this. And that takes a little bit of doing to get the attention.”
“But I think we have their attention,” he added. “And I’m hopeful that it’ll get in.”
Demonstrators gather to support Afghan evacuees outside the Capitol on Nov. 16, 2022.
AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib
‘We owe these Afghans’
Currently, Afghan evacuees have two methods to obtain lawful permanent residency: either apply for a special immigration visa or for asylum.
Both of those systems are severely backlogged and face long processing times, according to the bill’s supporters. As of the summer, there are more than 74,000 SIV applications in the pipeline – from both Afghan evacuees and allies still in Afghanistan. For asylum, there are an estimated 400,000 cases pending.
Beyond that, many Afghan evacuees cannot afford legal services, and the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services lack the capacity to handle all of their cases, according to Spojmie Nasiri, an immigration attorney based in Northern California.
“The process for asylum versus the process through the Afghan Adjustment Act are completely different,” said Nasiri, who’s been heavily involved in legal efforts for Afghan evacuees. The bill is “more streamlined and individuals would be able to obtain their green card faster,” she added.
Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a resettlement group that’s been advocating “nonstop” for the Afghan Adjustment Act, said the current legal route for permanent residency for Afghan evacuees is like “trying to put a square peg in a round hole.”
“That’s not a program that was meant for the kinds of allies and the nature of their work, advancing our values and our mission,” said Vignarajah, whose group has served around 14,000 Afghan evacuees since the US military withdrawal.
Some of the bill’s provisions include expanding eligibility for Afghan evacuees to apply for special immigrant visas, directing President Joe Biden to establish a taskforce to assist Afghan evacuees through the process, and ordering the State Department to create an office in Afghanistan to aid Afghan allies, such as issuing visas for those eligible. (The US embassy in Kabul suspended operations after the Taliban takeover.)
The Afghan Adjustment Act is similar to other measures enacted after times of conflict in Iraq, Vietnam, and Cuba, enabling evacuees from those countries to change their legal status in the US from temporary to permanent. Advocates say the US has a responsibility to Afghan evacuees because they fought for the American mission in Afghanistan for two decades.
“It would be an unprecedented failure if this Congress didn’t provide what previous congresses have given every modern wartime evacuee population,” Vignarajah said.
“For these families, it’s the prospect of a life and death decision of whether the US only provides temporary safe harbor or real permanent protection,” she added. “It’s a moral stain for our country if we fail to keep our promise.”
—AAAFireWatch (@AAAFireWatch) December 14, 2022
Congress has a lengthy list of priorities to tick off during its final stretch in session, including approving a sweeping package to keep the government funded through fiscal 2023. At the moment, one prospect to advance the Afghan Adjustment Act is by attaching it to that larger spending bill, advocates say. But negotiations on the omnibus are ongoing, and whether the Afghan Adjustment Act will be included is up in the air.
“I’m really hopeful that it will be. I don’t actually have a sense of whether or not it’s going to be,” VanDiver said. “Usually you kind of get an idea. Right now, I think it could go either way, and that’s scary because we owe these Afghans.”
Lawmakers are expected to pass a short-term continuing resolution to avert a government shutdown through December 23. Yet without a deal by then, passage of the Afghan Adjustment Act appears doomed, advocates say, keeping Afghan evacuees in perpetual legal limbo.
“Simply put, if we don’t get a vote in the next two weeks, we are likely never going to get a vote on this bill, at least not for the next two years,” Zeller said, adding that “there is almost no way” the measure would move forward under GOP House leadership beginning January 3.
Public polling shows that an overwhelming majority of Americans say the US should help Afghan evacuees and support efforts to do so. In the meantime, advocates are urging their fellow Americans to step up to the plate.
“Every American that believes in the American ideals should be calling their senators and urging them to support the Afghan Adjustment Act,” Rauf said.