According to a government report that CBS News obtained from Congress, at least 36,433 Afghan refugees are currently or will be resettled in America, there is no direct route to permanent legal residency.
The number, which had not been previously reported, represents over 40% of the tens of thousands of Afghans who were airlifted from Afghanistan as part of the largest evacuation and resettlement operation undertaken by the U.S. government since 1975, when the U.S. resettled 125,000 Vietnamese refugees after the fall of Saigon.
These Afghan evacuees are in legal limbo until Congress legalizes them, or they apply for and receive an immigration benefit such as asylum. However, the U.S. asylum program is plagued by a backlog that includes 412,000 applications. Others could lose their cases and be deported.
“We have been asking Congress to quickly pass the Afghan Adjustment Act. The tens of thousand of family members for which this is the only way to legal certainty only underline the urgency for it,” Krish O’Mara Vignarajah (president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service).
The hurried evacuations of Afghan government officials and their sudden collapse caused the Biden administration to bypass the decades-long refugee process to resettle Afghans who were deemed at risk of being persecuted or exiled by the Taliban. One year after arriving in the U.S., traditional refugees are eligible for permanent residence.
Instead, the administration used parole, a humanitarian legal authority that allows for the admission of Afghan evacuees. After vetting them at military bases in Europe and the Middle East, they were then admitted to the United States. Parole allows evacuees two years of legal residence in the U.S., but not permanent residency.
According to Friday’s Department of Homeland Security report, 70,192 Afghans were granted parole to enter the U.S. as of November 15. After their parole was revoked, five evacuees were deported. Although the report didn’t provide any reasons for parole terminations they could have been caused by criminal activity.
The report states that 36,821 Afghan refugees could be eligible for permanent residency under the Special Immigrant Visa program because of the support they and their immediate families provided to the U.S. military effort. This number includes both those who have applied for special visas and those who are expected to apply.
Green cards are automatically granted to special immigrant visa holders, their spouses and children. The 14-step visa program is plagued by delays, just like the asylum program.
The DHS report indicates that a smaller number of Afghans evacuated from Afghanistan did not have to go through the parole process. They already had legal permission for entry to the U.S. including 3,529 permanent residents, and 3,290 evacuees with special immigrant visas.
According to the most recent DHS statistics, 67,000 of the 76,000 Afghan evacuees have been resettled in the United States with the assistance of resettlement agencies and their families.
Around 8,000 evacuees are still at three military bases in New Jersey, Virginia, and Wisconsin. They have been receiving further processing and vaccination against coronaviruses and other diseases. Biden’s administration hopes to move all evacuees out of military installations by February mid-February.
According to DHS data, approximately 2,500 Afghans still await U.S.-bound flights from military bases in Qatar or the United Arab Emirates.
According to the report, “several hundred” Afghan refugees have been denied entry to the United States and must undergo “extra screening” because of security concerns. As of this month, 88 evacuees were still in Kosovo, where they had been vetted and 113 family members.
Congress granted Afghan evacuees refugee resettlement benefits last fall. This includes Medicaid and direct assistance for basic needs like housing and food. The U.S. asylum officers were instructed to speed up the processing of evacuees’ applications.
However, Congress has so far failed to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act which would allow permanent residency for evacuees despite vocal advocacy from refugee advocates and support from the public by the Biden administration.
Esther Olavarria, the White House’s top immigration official, stated earlier this month that the administration wanted to do more for Afghan evacuees by passing legislation “that would have permitted these individuals to apply directly for permanent residence status and bypass the asylum process.”
“But unfortunately Congress did not cooperate on that front,” Olavarria stated during an event hosted at the Migration Policy Institute. “So they are now going through the asylum procedure.”
A spokesperson for the National Security Council stated that the administration was “actively helping” refugees file asylum petitions or special immigrant visas. CBS News spokesperson said that they had asked Congress to approve legislation to grant Afghan partners who entered through humanitarian parole permanent status.
Although the Afghan resettlement effort has received some bipartisan support, many Republicans are still unsure about the U.S.’s screening of evacuees. DHS stated in its report that federal law enforcement agencies and intelligence agencies conduct biometric screenings of evacuees.
According to the DHS report, 36,433 evacuees do not have legal residency pathways. This includes family members of U.S citizens, green card holders, or special immigrant visa candidates; potential special visa petitioners that have yet to be identified; and those who might have been eligible for refugee resettlement.
Some of these evacuees may be eligible for permanent residency through the U.S. citizenship family sponsor or the asylum program, but Congress has yet to act. Many may not have U.S. citizens family members, and others may not meet the legal requirements for asylum.
According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the U.S. has not conducted a deportation flight from Afghanistan since late 2020. This leaves open the question of what will happen to evacuees who are denied immigration applications.
Advocates for refugees claim that all of these legal issues could be solved if the Afghan Adjustment Act is passed.
Vignarajah, the official in refugee resettlement, described the possibility of tens to thousands of evacuees attempting to enter the asylum pipeline as “deeply troubling” given the system’s dysfunction and backlog. She pointed out that some evacuees destroyed documents necessary for asylum cases in fear for their safety.
She said that many people were evacuated with only their clothes on.