The tens of thousands of Afghan refugees who made it to the United States as part of a historic humanitarian evacuation are entering an extraordinary system with very different benefits.
Some with Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) are being embraced by the government and granted assistance ranging from help with housing, food and clothing to lining up employment and qualifying for health care. These are mostly the Afghans and their families who worked as interpreters and guides for the U.S. military and government in Afghanistan during the 20-year war.
Those without the cachet of SIVs who somehow hitched a ride on a U.S. military cargo plane out of Kabul have been categorized as "parolees" who qualify only for short-term housing, modest stipends and other assistance for up to 90 days. None is guaranteed a path to a green card or full-time job, triggering concern among advocates of the evacuees that they might fall into legal limbo.
In a recent conversation with reporters, spokesmen for nonprofit organizations assisting the resettlement of refugees said Congress must get involved to avoid retraumatizing evacuees after their harrowing escape from Afghanistan and the Taliban. They noted that the U.S. immigration system is complex, bureaucratic and difficult to navigate.
“There needs to be action taken to make sure that, regardless of their status, there is some clear pathway for them to get on a [permanent residence] status,” said Adam Bates, policy counsel at the International Refugee Assistance Project.
“Given the current immigration system in this country, the administration needs to work with Congress closely,” Bates said.
Differences in immigration status
The Pentagon and U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials said in recent news briefings they were able to evacuate 65,000 Afghans as part of the historic airlift following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
Of those, about 24,000 have arrived in the U.S. since August 17. Evacuation flights landed at Dulles International Airport in Virginia. From there, Afghans were sent to U.S. military bases in Virginia, Texas, Wisconsin and New Jersey for immigration processing.
Some had SIV status. Others were going through the elaborate and lengthy 14-step SIV application process, which requires specific criteria to be met. The process, including decision-making and approval, takes an average of three years. The applicant must receive the visa before entering the U.S.
Those who completed the process and were able to leave Afghanistan for the U.S before the evacuation are on a path to receiving permanent residence, according to lawyers.
But the future is much less certain for those who arrived without a visa or any proper documentation. These recent arrivals were allowed into the country under a “humanitarian parole” designation, which is usually granted because of an emergency or urgent humanitarian reason.
The time limit for parole status is one year. However, U.S. immigration officials can extend it by another 12 months.
A refugee advocate told VOA that Afghans under temporary humanitarian parole are being sent with their families to military bases to receive a health screening and assistance to apply for a U.S. work authorization.
Protection from deportation
A person who enters the country under humanitarian parole designation is temporarily protected from deportation and allowed to apply for work authorization. But parole does not confer immigration status, grant parolees' public benefits or constitute a path to U.S. citizenship.
Meanwhile, Afghan SIV recipients are eligible for the same resettlement assistance and other benefits as any refugee who is admitted under the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. The support lasts for about eight months after an individual is admitted to the United States.
SIV recipients are also on a path to permanent residency followed by U.S. citizenship, a process that can take more than five years.
The DHS announced that under Operation Allies Welcome, recent arrivals are being screened and vetted in a process that involves “biometric and biographic screenings conducted by intelligence, law enforcement and counterterrorism professionals from DHS, the State Department, Department of Defense and FBI,” among other agencies.
In an email to VOA, a State Department spokesperson said on background that individuals and their families granted special immigrant status by DHS will receive some resettlement benefits.
Those paroled into the country will be provided initial relocation assistance through local agencies participating in the Afghan Placement and Assistance (APA) Program.
“Through this program, individuals will be placed in communities across the country to begin to rebuild their lives,” the State Department official wrote. “The agencies will provide assistance with critical needs such as housing, enrolling children in school, and basic necessities such as food, clothing, and furnishings during the first 30-90 days in their new communities.”
The official also said a one-time $2,275 stipend is provided to the local resettlement agencies, where $1,225 is available for agencies to use for housing and other needs.
“We are working with Congress and the interagency to explore whether we could make the federal benefits that are available to refugees and SIVs, such as Medicaid or [welfare], available to individuals granted parole status. The support coming from the private sector will be critical to meeting the needs of this population,” the spokesperson wrote.
Nonprofits such as Catholic Charities in Texas, Muslim Women Resource Center in Michigan and New American Pathways in Georgia are some of the organizations involved in assisting the resettlement of Afghans across the nation.
Those who helped evacuees on the ground either in Afghanistan or in the U.S. are urging Congress to grant Afghans full access to a refugee resettlement path that leads to a permanent residence in the United States.
“They're trying to start a new life in a new country. The last thing they need is to be retraumatized by a U.S. immigration system that is not sympathetic to their situation,” Bates said.
Asylum, a possibility
If Congress does not act, immigration attorneys said applying for asylum in the U.S. is the next option.
U.S. law offers asylum to people facing persecution in their home countries. However, the process is lengthy, can take years, and applicants would be facing an immigration court that is backlogged with 1.3 million asylum cases.
Asylum-seekers must apply within one year from the date of arrival and, above all, they must prove to the asylum officer or to an immigration court judge that they have a “credible fear” of returning to their home country.
“It is absolutely unacceptable for any of these people to be returned to Afghanistan,” Bates said.