Bill to Grant Afghan Evacuees a Path to Residency Hits Snags

WASHINGTON – On the lawn outside the Capitol this week, flags of two countries flew in a silent protest: those of the United States and Afghanistan from before they fell to the Taliban.

Beside them are supporters of Afghans who risked their lives to help Americans in the decades-long war in Afghanistan – as translators, drivers and repairmen – and had to leave the country. last year when American forces withdrew. About 82,000 people were evacuated to the USbut since then most have lived in legal limbo, not allowed to be sustained for long.

Army veterans and other advocates have lobbied Congress for more than a year to provide Afghan evacuees a path to permanent legal status in the United States. Many people are only temporarily authorized to stay, although they will most likely never be able to return safely to their old homes. Now, they are pushing for legislation to address the issue to be included in a must-pass spending bill to keep government funding through the end of the month, when it is expected to lapse.

But despite support from the White House, a bipartisan group of senators and military veterans, the direct path to legal status for Afghans has proved difficult to establish amid some party members. Republicans protested, who said the evacuees posed a security risk. The measure is unlikely to be included in this month’s spending package because of those objections.

“It is a brutal thing that it took so long to complete this simple task,” said Shawn VanDiver, a Navy veteran and founder of the AfghanistanEvac group, which supports resettlement efforts. . “This is not in dispute. I wish we could appear to them as they appeared to us. “

Advocates have backed them behind a bipartisan bill called the Afghanistan Adjustment Act that would allow Afghans on short-term humanitarian parole – usually lasting two years – to apply for legal status. permanently if they submit additional investigations, including interviews.

Demonstrations at the Capitol in support of the bill continued for a week. Matt Zeller, an army captain who served in Afghanistan and the translator saved his life.

The measure, sponsored by Senators Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, and Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, is modeled after laws enacted after other humanitarian crises, such as the Vietnam War. Male. Similar regulations were enacted after the crises in Cuba, Nicaragua and Iraq.

The bill would allow evacuees to pass an extra layer of security screening to apply for permission to permanently stay in the United States without having to go through the years-long administrative burden of applying and being approved for asylum. . It is intended to address security concerns about evacuees from Afghanistan, who were rushed out of the country when US forces abruptly left, leading some to suggest they were not properly screened. potential links to terrorism or other criminal acts.

About 3,500 evacuees brought to the United States are now lawful permanent residents, and more than 3,000 have received special immigrant visas. Most of the others are in the country on humanitarian parole.

The White House introduced the Afghanistan Adjustment Act request for spending bill that must have passed by September 30.

“Afghans have fallen into this real legal limbo because the US government has essentially adopted short-term Band-Aids,” said Krish Vignarajah, president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugees Authority. for a population in need of long-term protection. “The Biden administration inherits a ruined asylum program from its predecessors.”

Congress did not include a similar proposal in the emergency spending bill passed in May to help fund the war in Ukraine, despite President Biden’s call.

Proponents argue that the lack of action reflects some policymakers’ bias toward helping people from a Muslim-majority country when the United States has welcomed refugees. from Ukraine, a predominantly white and Christian majority country.

“The level of support for Ukrainian refugees has been very high and well deserved,” said Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat of Delaware and a co-sponsor of the bill to help displaced Afghans. “But the Afghans, even those who have served alongside us, have struggled somewhat to gain the same level of support. And that’s really unfortunate.”

The difference is especially serious for Afghans still abroad. Since the evacuation from their country ended, the United States has mostly stopped being quick to accept parole requests from Afghans still abroad. Many of the applicants have fled Afghanistan, and no organization currently processes applications from within the Taliban-controlled country.

The vast majority of applications for humanitarian amnesty for Afghans abroad have yet to be reviewed or denied. After the initial evacuation, 48,900 parole requests were made on their behalf; Only 369 have been approved so far in July.

By contrast, tens of thousands of Ukrainians have entered the United States on humanitarian parole.

Republicans argue that their opposition to providing a legal path to the displaced Afghans is rooted in security concerns.

Stephen Miller, who was a senior adviser to President Donald J. Trump and was a central figure in gutting the refugee program during his administration, argued shortly after the fall of the capital Kabul that Afghans should not be allowed to evacuate into the United States because they have not yet faced rigorous screening.

“If you attract valuable individuals of several provinces from Afghanistan, you will replicate the conditions in Afghanistan here in the United States of America and all the horrors that follow,” Mr. Miller said on Fox News last year.

Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, raised concerns on Capitol Hill about the checks, citing report of the inspector general at the Department of Homeland Security found that evacuees from Afghanistan “have not been fully screened” have been allowed into the United States.

“It is completely inadequate to screen those admitted to the United States following President Biden’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan,” Grassley said in a statement.

Customs and Border Protection disagreed with the finding, saying it informed investigators in November that “all individuals were screened, examined, and examined.” “.

Republicans also complained that the State Department had failed to provide information about its vetting process.

Lawmakers sponsoring the bill said it would ensure that Afghans seeking permanent residency would be subject to higher security standards.

The bill would mandate screening “equivalent to the screening they would have received if they had come here initially as refugees,” Ms Klobuchar said.

Mr. Graham said his fellow Republicans had “legitimate concerns” about security, but those problems could be addressed by tightening the bill’s vetting requirements.

“These people have nowhere to go. Their country has gone to hell,” he said of the displaced Afghans. “There are security concerns, but here’s the overarching theme for me: We need to try to get it right with these people.”

For now, there is little sign that Congress is ready to act, even as some Afghans say they would be willing to submit to further edits if it meant an opportunity to stay in the United States. Castle.

Arafat Safi, a senior official in Afghanistan’s foreign ministry when Kabul fell to the Taliban and is now in the US for a humanitarian amnesty, said there was no way he could return to his country.

“I don’t see a way back to Afghanistan while these guys are there,” he said of the Taliban. “I always wish for a better future for my kids, a better place where they can grow up. So I believe the United States will be my home.”

VanDiver, one of the protesters outside the Capitol this week, said he joined the effort after an Afghan friend texted him from a Taliban-besieged mountain in August 2021. .

Mr VanDiver said: “He asked me to make his final request and help get his family out. “Me too. And I’m doing all I can.”

Emily Cochrane contribution report.

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