Despite round-the-clock efforts by the military to evacuate Afghans loyal to the United States in the wake of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan just days ago, immigration experts say it is unknown how many of them will actually be admitted to the U.S. as refugees.
With less than two months left in the current fiscal year, the U.S. is on track to finish with the lowest number of refugee admissions ever recorded — a testament in part to the anti-immigration sentiment among many Americans that flourished under former President Donald Trump and persists during the Biden administration.
The U.S. has welcomed only 6,250 refugees in fiscal 2021 under President Joe Biden, far below a refugee cap of 85,000 in fiscal 2016, in the final year of the Obama administration.
Upon taking office in 2017, Trump suspended the resettlement program for 120 days, which significantly slowed the admission processing. He then set the refugee admission cap at 50,000 and continued to lower it to 15,000 for 2021.
Only 76,200 refugees were admitted throughout the Trump administration.
Experts predict only a small number of the Afghans able to depart Kabul in the coming weeks aboard military aircraft will end up in the U.S. Many more will be dispatched to other countries, mostly in Europe.
"It is too late for any sort of processing,” Sunil Varghese, policy director for the International Refugee Assistance Project, told VOA in describing the plight of Afghans seeking approval of their applications amid the chaos and violence surrounding the international airport in Kabul.
The U.S. immigration system includes a patchwork of complex laws for regulating the flow of refugees and asylum-seekers into the country, including legislation to provide special visas to Afghan residents and their immediate families who supported the U.S. military effort over the past 20 years by serving as interpreters, fixers and other aides.
More than 300,000 Afghan civilians have aided the American mission over the past two decades, according to the International Rescue Committee, but only a small fraction qualify for refugee protection in the U.S. According to media reports, about 2,000 of those people whose applications had already been processed arrived in the U.S. over the weekend on evacuation flights from Kabul.
Varghese said evacuating displaced Afghans and placing them in the refugee program are two separate situations.
“Not a lot of Afghans are resettled in the U.S. through the [current] refugee program. … Right now, we’re just trying to get people out in any way they can. … We need a strong and effective refugee program to make sure that they have a pathway to the U.S.,” Varghese said.
In fact, according to data from the State Department, only 85 Afghan refugees have been resettled in the U.S. since January. In June, 162 people were admitted through the program, but the number dropped to 84 in July.
Though no promises were made on how many people were expected to be evacuated, the Biden administration has repeatedly said it is working to speed up the evacuation of Afghans in danger who assisted the U.S. military.
“We don’t have the capability to go out and collect large numbers of people,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a briefing Wednesday for reporters. He added that evacuations would continue “until the clock runs out, or we run out of capability.”
In early August, the State Department issued an announcement authorizing those fleeing Afghanistan to get priority consideration under the traditional refugee resettlement program.
But that does not mean refugees are being flown straight to the United States.
Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, said in an interview with WYPR public radio station that the current refugee program is the pathway through which women, gender rights activists, journalists or other vulnerable Afghans could be relocated to the United States if they do not qualify under the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program, designed to provide a path to legal residency in the U.S.
“Special Immigrant Visas have very specific criteria through which applicants can be eligible. … But for those populations — gender rights activists, journalists, academics, teachers, women leaders — who are now vulnerable because they could be targeted not because they served or were on the payroll of the U.S. government but because they advanced the U.S. mission through different efforts, those individuals would be resettled through the traditional resettlement program,” Vignarajah said.
The application process for SIVs, including decision-making and approval, takes an average of three years, while resettlement through the refugee program can take up to five years. Applications to either program begin outside the United States.
Vignarajah said refugee-vetting remains thorough and that refugees fall into a low-security risk category.
In his presidential campaign, Biden pledged to “increase the number” of refugees allowed into the United States to 125,000. In the White House, he signed an order keeping the admission of refugees capped at 15,000 for fiscal 2021, a number previously set by the Trump administration.
After being sharply criticized by his Democratic allies, the president formally pledged to accept 62,500 refugees in fiscal 2021.
But the reality, according to experts, is that the U.S. will “probably” accept fewer than 10,000 refugees by the end of September.
Stephen Yale-Loehr, an immigration law professor at Cornell University, told VOA in an email the administration could use an existing immigration process to allow refugees into the country: humanitarian parole.
“Humanitarian parole is used to bring someone who is not otherwise eligible to enter the country, or who does not have a visa, into the United States temporarily because of an emergency or urgent humanitarian reason,” Yale-Loehr explained.
Although a bipartisan group of 46 U.S. senators urged the administration to use this humanitarian relief, it is unknown if Biden officials will heed their pleas.