When humanitarian parole passed the House of Representatives last month as part of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better package, it was a tentative win for organizers working with refugees. If signed into law, it would give relief to about 6.5 million undocumented Americans, providing temporary protections from deportations, work permits, advance parole, and some federal benefits for 10 years. But, for the over 80,000 Afghan refugees who have arrived or are waiting to be admitted to the U.S., humanitarian parole is still only a temporary solution. In just two years, those who are granted humanitarian parole could be subject to deportation. To prevent this from happening, Afghan refugees and activists are calling on Congress to introduce and pass an Afghan Adjustment Act to ensure stability in the wake of the Taliban’s takeover of their country in August, and to create a clearer path to citizenship.
“I’m so worried about our uncertain future,” says Mustafa Jahanmal, a 30-year-old Afghan refugee who arrived in August and is a recipient of humanitarian parole. “We are requesting from the United States Congress to pave a way for all Afghans to become lawful permanent residents.”
A potential Afghan Adjustment Act has received overwhelming support from organizations including Amnesty International, Veterans for American Ideals, and International Refugee Assistance Project. Advocates of the potential policy hope to receive bipartisan support from the policy in Congress. The recommended legislation would allow at-risk Afghans who have been or will be paroled into the U.S. between July 1, 2021, and July 1, 2025, to apply to adjust their status and apply for a green card. It would also include a discretionary waiver authority to exempt Afghans who worked as civil servants or were forced to work under the Taliban during a situation of hardship or duress. According to the IRAP’s factsheet, “current law does not appropriately reckon with the fact that the Taliban is the de facto government of Afghanistan, and this creates a high likelihood that … at-risk Afghans could be barred from permanent status for arbitrary or wrongful reasons that have no bearing on national security.”
The State Department has previously determined, and the Supreme Court has upheld, that merely working in any capacity (including clerks and school teachers) under the Taliban government was sufficient cause to bar a visa applicant as part of the Terrorism-Related Inadmissibility Grounds (TRIG). This waiver authority is vital to ensure that something as minor as being the victim of a Taliban checkpoint shakedown does not prevent Afghan parolees from permanent status. Republican Sen. Tom Cotton and 25 of his Senate colleagues have already written a letter demanding information about the vetting process for Afghans who had ties to terrorist organizations, without considering that some may have had to work under the Taliban during duress or extreme hardship.
“The way that law is interpreted leads to absurd situations where people who should be protected are not,” says Adam Bates, policy council for International Refugee Assistance Project. “The waiver gives the administration the discretion to look at individual cases and make a decision of whether that should be waived in a particular context.”
Jahanmal worked as an interpreter for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan for most of his life, but when Kabul fell to the Taliban in August, he knew he wasn’t safe. He gathered his wife and three young children and got on one of the first flights out. Since then, Jahanmal has been advocating for an Afghan Adjustment Act that would help Afghan refugees apply to adjust their status and become lawful permanent residents.
After a 20-year occupation, Afghan refugees like Jahanmal and organizers say a clear path to citizenship is the least the U.S. can do after leaving Afghanistan in the hands of the Taliban—causing turmoil and upheaval for the country’s citizens and the people who protected the U.S.’ presence there.
“I started working for the United States Army when I was a teenager. I didn’t even have a beard,” he says.
Jahanmal knows firsthand how difficult, confusing, and tedious the process to become a permanent resident in the U.S. can be. He has been applying since 2013 for a Special Immigrant Visa for Afghans who were employed on behalf of the U.S. government, but each application has been denied for bureaucratic reasons, like failing to attach all the documents in one single email. He most recently reapplied in September after having been rejected.
“I hope I get it, that way it’ll be easy for me to be processed and apply for a green card and become a permanent resident,” he says.
Threats to safety for Afghan refugees
Israr, a 26-year-old Afghan refugee who requested to withhold his last name for fear of his family’s safety in Afghanistan, worked as an interpreter for the U.S. Army for three years. Now, he hopes a path to citizenship will be extended to him and others who are faced with having to adjust to a new country, while still processing the trauma they experienced just months before.
“I need to stay here permanently,” Israr says. “But, everything is new for me here.”
In August, Israr watched on TV and on social media as provinces across the country fell to the Taliban at a rapid pace. He knew the situation would inevitably reach his home in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, where he lived with his wife. He tried to apply for a Special Immigrant Visa through USCIS, but there was not enough time to process it. He rushed to the airport, where he was confronted with thousands of other people attempting to flee. He approached a U.S. Army soldier who told Israr he could get on a plane out of the country if he worked for a few hours as an interpreter supporting the U.S. Army, communicating with the Afghans who did not speak English.
“I said, ‘I’m ready to help you,’” Israr recounted.
As Israr assisted the U.S. Army, he saw wounded children, women, and dead bodies along the floor—victims of the Taliban. At that time, a member of the Taliban saw him and took his photo, taking note of the Afghans who were assisting the U.S. Army. When Israr noticed the first flight was about the take off, he approached the liteaunant and asked about their deal. He was told they couldn’t put him and his wife on the flight now.
“I wasn’t safe in Afghanistan anymore, the Taliban already saw me,” says Israr. “They will kill me.”
Left in the lurk, Israr scrambled to swap clothes with another civilian in the airport, to disguise himself so the Taliban would not recognize him leaving the airport. They drove back to their home and the next day, they attempted to enter the airport through the North Gate. This time, Israr talked their way in when a line of Taliban soldiers hit him and his wife repeatedly along their backs with their guns, injuries which he is still receiving care for. In the chaos of the situation, he lost most of his personal belongings except for a plastic bag holding his passport, and documentation.
Israr and his wife were eventually able to board a flight to Qatar, where they were routed to a refugee camp in Texas. They stayed there for two months. Eventually, Israr’s case was transferred to the International Institute of New England (IINE), one of the more than 200 resettlement providers across the U.S. that resettles refugees and asylees who are fleeing persecution. Israr and his wife were housed with a host family in Massachusetts, where they receive help with accessing public benefits, food stamps, getting a work permit, and hopefully finding pro bono legal counsel to start the process of establishing residency.
“This is the first time we had even left our family,” says Isar. “We were scared, everything is new for us here. But when I got to this house [in Massachusetts], it’s felt like a real family. They’re doing a great job and supporting me. It feels like a miracle.”
Jeffrey Thielman, the president and CEO of IINE, has helped resettle 96 refugees out of the 425 they agreed to assist since August. In the process, he hopes to help the refugees become members of the community, but he acknowledges the many roadblocks that still exist once they arrive. Once a refugee arrives through humanitarian parole, they will apply for affirmative asylum, which is a costly and severely backlogged process that will likely take more than the two years they have been granted on parole. For those who don’t speak English and have larger families, the process becomes more challenging.
“It puts extra stress and pressure on their lives,” says Thielman. “To put these people through the additional trauma of a lengthy asylum process is unjust.”
In order to apply for asylum, Thielman explains that you need to have a well-founded documented fear of persecution. Many of the refugees fled rapidly from Afghanistan without any documentation of their experience.
“An Afghan Adjustment Act is going to stabilize families at a time when they need to be stable,” says Thielman. “Their kids are in school, they’re trying to adjust to a new country and new life, they’re trying to restart their lives, and they’re still dealing with trauma. They need less trauma, not more. Fewer bureaucratic challenges, not more.”
Activists point to the Cuban and Iraq Adjustment Acts as precedent where Congress has passed similar legislation at the conclusion of several U.S.-involved conflicts or humanitarian crises in the past. The legislation just needs to first be introduced.