Tuesday, 15 August 2023 20:19

An act of Congress could grant legal status to thousands of Afghan allies. What’s the holdup?

Coils of razor wire lay across the tarmac at the Kabul airport in Afghanistan, left behind after the US military withdrew from the country and Taliban fighters moved in to take control of the airport, on August 31, 2021.

Two years ago, the Taliban marched into Kabul, the Afghan government collapsed, and the United States, already scheduled to depart on August 31, rushed to evacuate Americans and Afghan allies. Not everyone who should have gotten on those planes did, but the US airlifted some 120,000 people in two chaotic weeks.

About 78,000 were Afghans, who arrived in the US as part of Operation Allies Welcome. They were vetted, screened, and stayed for weeks, sometimes months, at US military bases, before they were resettled in communities around the country. Most of these arrivals were granted humanitarian parole, a two-year temporary status.

Two years later, the majority of these Afghan arrivals are still on parole, their statuses stuck in limbo. That includes thousands of Afghans who supported US troops, or embassies.

There is a pretty simple fix to all this: the Afghan Adjustment Act (AAA).

The legislation would give Afghan allies in the US a clear pathway to legal permanent residency. The US used to pass this kind of legislation with some regularity, and most notably did so in the 1970s for tens of thousands of South Asians after the Vietnam War. The Afghan Adjustment Act has strong bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress, and a diverse coalition of backers, from Afghan groups to immigration advocates to veterans groups to former top national security and military officials. The issue has traditionally had broad public support, too.

And yet, the Afghan Adjustment Act is stuck in Congress. It has been that way for more than a year, leaving Afghans in a constant state of uncertainty.

“It’s a microcosm. It’s a very straightforward thing that the US can do to follow through on a promise it made to Afghans,” said Joseph Azam, board chair of the Afghan-American Foundation. “And so far, the government’s demonstrated a manifest inability to deliver on that promise. Which is kind of the story of Afghanistan for the US.”

Why are so many Afghans still in limbo?

Parwana Amiri evacuated from Afghanistan in August 2021, with her husband and three kids. Her husband worked as a interpreter for the United States military. In 2014, he applied for a Special Immigration Visa (SIV), available to those who directly assisted the US military or government. They are still waiting.

She and her family are currently in Maryland, where Amiri has started a catering service. But there is a kind of strangeness in trying to build a business, in trying to put down roots, when you don’t know how long it will last. “We don’t know our future after these two years,” Amiri said. “I know we have two more years in [the] US, but I don’t know after the two years what happens.”

Those two extra years are a result of the Biden administration’s decision to renew parole for Afghans in the US for another two years, until 2025, which otherwise would have expired this month. It is a reprieve, but an impermanent one. Afghans have work authorization and protection from deportation, but only for now. It depends on — or can be ended — by presidential action. Even with this, Afghans cannot travel, and they cannot bring over their family members, some still at risk in a country in complete crisis.

This is the limbo that many Afghans are trapped in. In the aftermath of the Kabul evacuation, the US government estimated about 40 percent of those Afghan arrivals were eligible, or in process, for Special Immigration Visas (SIVs). That program provides a pathway to permanent residency, but it is lengthy and slow-moving. Through 2022, the average SIV processing time was 628 days, though the State Department says it is now at about 314, according to a June report by Voice of America.

The Afghans evacuated in 2021 also include journalists, aid workers, human rights activists, and their families, along with others whose lives were endangered in a Taliban-led Afghanistan. Many do not meet the narrow criteria for SIVs. They must instead navigate the even more slow-moving, massively backlogged asylum system.

As of May 2023, across all categories of Afghan evacuees, about 2,500 Afghans received asylum, and about 5,600 were approved for green cards — some 8,000 out of around 78,000, according to data from United States Citizen and Immigration Services.

The Afghan Adjustment Act is the solution, and it’s not exactly a novel one. “We have examples of it being done in the past, and we really just need to lean into what we already know needs to happen for this Afghan population,” said Srdan Sadikovic, director of US federal advocacy at the International Rescue Committee.

The US has passed immigration adjustments periodically throughout history, offering protection to people — Cubans in 1966, Nicaraguans and other Central Americans in the 1990s — who would face great risk if they returned to their homelands. The Indo-Chinese Refugee Status Adjustment Act, passed in 1977, granted legal status to Vietnamese and other South Asian refugees evacuated to the US after the fall of Saigon.

The current version of the Afghan Adjustment Act would allow Afghans in the US to become legal permanent residents here, after additional vetting. This had sidelined the legislation in the past, with some Republican lawmakers expressing concerns about the vetting of Afghan evacuees because the Kabul exit was so messy and haphazard. To be clear: All Afghan arrivals went through thorough vetting and screening before arriving in the US, then waited weeks on US military bases.

The current version of the AAA would also expand the eligibility for SIV recipients, to include members of the Afghan Air Force and the Female Tactical Platoon, among others. The legislation would also establish a State Department-led interagency task force to continue the relocation and resettlement of Afghans over the next 10 years — that is, set up potential processes to keep helping the tens of thousands of people left behind in Afghanistan, or who are currently in third countries.

These additional pieces may have less of an immediate impact than, say, giving green cards to the thousands of Afghans here, but as Azam says, it at least draws some parameters on the US’s responsibility. “It puts markers down to say, look, it might be really, really, really, really hard to get here. But at least we’re acknowledging that there’s a pathway and there is some process that people can try to go through to get here.”

Still, the AAA has stalled in Congress. The bill was introduced in August 2022, although advocates had been proposing such a plan since the evacuation. A group of Democratic and Republican co-sponsors in both the House and the Senate reintroduced the bill this July, though lawmakers failed to bring it for a vote as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the must-pass defense funding bill. There is still a slim chance it could make its way back into the NDAA when Congress returns from recess — but those odds are really, really slim. That leaves an otherwise broadly bipartisan bill still stalled.

A thing the US used to do with some regularity isn’t happening anymore

These adjustment acts are sort of win-win. The AAA would settle immigration status and bring stability to people already in the US. But it would also swiftly clear a backlog in the immigration system.

Which is why versions of adjustment acts have been used as a tool by Congress before, with support from both parties. They make practical and logistical sense — and that is before getting into the moral, political, national security, and humanitarian imperatives.

After the war in Vietnam, both Republicans and Democrats found the political will to grant status to those who had been US allies in Vietnam, in part because of a sense of responsibility. Those, alongside additional efforts to try to bring over US allies were seen as a kind of “moral repair,” said Yael Schacher, director for Americas and Europe at Refugees International. It became a way to mitigate some of the failures in Vietnam.

That sense of responsibility after Vietnam also aligned with the US’s national interests during the Cold War. “The United States wanted to continue representing itself as a country that people fleeing communism wanted to resettle in. This created bipartisan support,” said Jana Lipman, a history professor at Tulane University.

The geopolitics of 2023 are not the same, of course. The Taliban is making itself persona non grata on the world stage all on its own, but the US’s treatment of its Afghan allies still undermines the country’s credibility, and could undermine its ability to operate in future conflicts.

The list of the US’s failures in Afghanistan, under multiple Republican and Democratic administration is a very, very long one. But, at the most basic level, the United States waged a 20-year war, and enlisted many, many local Afghans in that effort. The US also made promises, especially on things like women’s rights. Once the Taliban took over, those who fought alongside the US, and who promoted US policy priorities, were left exposed. The Afghan Adjustment Act is a down payment on some of what America owes Afghanistan.

“It’s not only a humanitarian issue, which it certainly is, but it’s a matter of national security,” said Jennie Murray, president and CEO of the National Immigration Forum.

These pretty straightforward arguments haven’t yet translated into policy. Some advocates and experts suggested that is because there has been so little bipartisan accountability on the war in Afghanistan as a whole. “It’s a reminder of America’s failings,” said Arash Azizzada, co-founder and co-director of Afghans For a Better Tomorrow.

“I think many are eager to just never talk about this population ever again,” he added, of Afghans. “And it’s easy to ignore as an underresourced and underrepresented and marginalized population.”

Afghan evacuees have been caught up in America’s larger political debates. No party owns the failures in Afghanistan; but the botched exit happened under President Joe Biden, and Democrats may not necessarily be eager to push that back into the news. The AAA is still an immigration bill, and anti-immigration sentiment within parts of the Republican Party is going to make any such legislation difficult to pass.

Case in point: Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) also recently introduced legislation that would grant Afghan allies a pathway to permanent status. But it also included what some advocates called a “poison pill”: a provision that would limit the president’s authority to grant humanitarian parole. That would make something like the emergency evacuations from Kabul harder to replicate ever again.

The AAA is the bare minimum the US owes to Afghanistan

The AAA would streamline the legal status for the thousands of evacuees in America right now. But it also begins to remedy the other uncomfortable reality of the US occupation of Afghanistan: all of the thousands left behind.

The State Department estimated this spring that about 150,000 SIV applicants are still in Afghanistan. The AAA would expand eligibility for SIVs, but there are thousands of other Afghans at risk who don’t meet the SIV definition. That includes some former Afghan government officials, aid workers, activists, women leaders, journalists, and all the people tied to them. Afghanistan’s economy is also in freefall, a humanitarian catastrophe spurred, in part, by the US’s withdrawal.

Granting permanent status to Afghans through AAA would allow them to potentially bring family members to the US. Evacuations from Afghanistan have still happened, but at a trickle. Tens of thousands of people have fled to other countries — like Pakistan, or Iran — where they are also stuck in limbo. A recent report from Refugees International found some 600,000 Afghans have fled to Pakistan since the Taliban takeover. About 20,000 of them are likely eligible for US programs, but they can’t move forward with their applications because the US and Pakistan are at odds on how to process these applications.

After Vietnam, and the initial adjustment act, the US adopted programs to try to bring over more South Asian allies, including 1979’s Orderly Departure Program. It required diplomacy and political will. (Vietnam, too, wanted international legitimacy, something the Taliban seems unmotivated by so far.) These programs stopped and stalled at some points in the 1980s, but lasted well into the mid-1990s, and the Orderly Departure Program ultimately admitted more than 500,000 Vietnamese to the United States.

Afghanistan is also going to require investment. “There’s just a lot to be done,” said Schacher, of Refugees International. “Unless we just say, ‘We’re abandoning all these people, and we’re not going to do what we did after Vietnam.’”

The US needs to grapple with these difficult questions. That is also what makes the Afghan Adjustment Act so frustrating to its backers. It should be the easy part.

“Our nation’s moral obligations to Afghans didn’t end when the last plane took off from Kabul,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. “It’s how we act now that will define our legacy for generations to come. This is a can that Congress can’t kick down the road again.”