With the second anniversary of the American military exit from Afghanistan fast approaching, advocates worry they are running out of time to address the plight of tens of thousands of Afghan refugees who remain stuck in immigration limbo as the issue fades out of public consciousness.
Lawmakers and veterans groups plan a major push on the issue this fall, but prospects for meaningful progress on the issue remain dim.
“We have to get something done, because our allies in Afghanistan, our partners there are relying on us,” said Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo. and an Army veteran who has been leading the issue for the last few years. “It hasn’t panned out so far, but we’re gonna keep pushing.”
In the days before the last U.S. troops departed Afghanistan on Aug. 30, 2021, more than 80,000 Afghan refugees were rushed out of the country aboard American aircraft in an effort to protect them from advancing Taliban forces.
But some advocacy groups estimate as many as 150,000 Afghans that assisted the U.S. mission were left behind, including individuals who worked closely with U.S. military forces as interpreters and combat assistants. Thousands have State Department visa applications that have been pending for years.
And individuals who managed to escape still live with chronic uncertainty about their legal status and looming fears of deportation, because procedures for resolving their lingering immigration applications still have not been finalized.
Most Afghans airlifted to the U.S. during the late summer and early fall of 2021 were granted “humanitarian parole,” a tenuous, temporary authorization to reside in the country.
Parolee status, which enables Afghans to apply for employment authorization and other government benefits, expires after two years for most evacuees. Those attempting to reauthorize their parole or secure lawful permanent residence through the SIV or asylum process must navigate a labyrinth of paperwork and bureaucratic backlogs.
Without clarity on their future, advocates worry, some individuals could lose their jobs or, at worst, face deportation to foreign countries in coming months.
“There’s a constant fear that they’ll have to face the Taliban again,” said Safi Rauf, an Afghan citizen and U.S. Navy reservist who founded the Human First Coalition, which works to evacuate refugees from Afghanistan. “There’s not a day that goes by that these [refugees] don’t think about it.”
In a letter to congressional leaders last week, 24 veterans groups — including With Honor Action, No One Left Behind and Operation Pineapple Express Relief — urged lawmakers to find solutions before the end of the year.
“For two years, thousands of Afghans have been ruthlessly pursued by the Taliban and left in American bureaucratic limbo,” the groups wrote. “The moral imperative is clear and the time to act is now.
“We served and shed blood alongside many of these brave Afghans, whose only sin was to pursue a better democratic future for their country. Please do not allow them to be ignored and unprotected for another legislative calendar year. Their lives could well depend on whether America keeps her promise.”
Over the last 24 months, advocates have held recurring rallies outside the Capitol begging for action and chastising lawmakers who have blocked potential fixes.
Most of the debate has focused on two bills: the Afghan Allies Protection Act (AAPA) and the Afghan Adjustment Act (AAA). The former, introduced in early June by Crow and a bipartisan group of House lawmakers, would authorize 20,000 new special immigrant visas (above the 38,500 already approved since 2014) for Afghans that worked for the American government and extend the visa program by five years, until December 2029.
Crow acknowledged the plan isn’t a full fix to the Afghan refugee problem but said it would provide ways to more quickly bring some individuals safely to American soil.
The Afghan Adjustment Act has stalled in Congress for more than two years now. The more comprehensive measure would clear up pathways to legal residency for evacuees and enhance vetting of those who seek it.
It would also extend special immigrant visa eligibility to Afghans that fought alongside U.S. armed forces but never formally signed contracts with U.S. government entities, including Afghan special operations troops and female members of the Afghan National Security Forces.
The measure was reintroduced earlier this summer by another bipartisan group of House and Senate lawmakers, including Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, R-Iowa, also an Army veteran. She said the changes are needed to speed up the current immigration processes, which have left too many allies floundering in confusing government protocols.
“The State Department is trying to follow its codes and regulations, and we understand that,” she said. “But we don’t see the urgency that has been needed over the last two years. And these people are in peril.”
But the Afghan Adjustment Act has been blocked multiple times by a group of Senate Republicans who have objected to what they see as insufficient background checks for would-be immigrants from Afghanistan.
Last fall, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, publicly blasted White House officials for too-lax vetting policies for incoming Afghan allies and said he could not support the pending measures. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., earlier this year blocked attempts to add the Afghan Adjustment Act to the annual defense authorization bill.
Miller-Meeks said given the opposition thus far, “a more narrow bill focused on just our Afghan interpreters and allies may be more realistic this year.” She and Crow are both hopeful that they can convince more colleagues to drop their objections in coming months.
“We need to do more to help individuals who are already here,” she said. “Where are they going to return to? Afghanistan?”
Despite promises from congressional leadership to address the issue, advocates aren’t optimistic about the prospects for any legislative success this year.
“Passing any bill related to immigration is incredibly hard,” Rauf said. “We’re not even seeing a chance to bring the bills to the floor.”
Rauf has led dozens and rallies across America to rally support for the Afghan Adjustment Act and related bills over the last two years, and has been disappointed by both Republican opposition and a lack of Democratic emphasis on the issue. Support for helping Afghan allies crosses party lines, he insisted, so leaders from both sides should be pushing the issue.
Advocacy groups estimate that about 152,000 applicants for the special immigrant visas are currently stuck in Afghanistan awaiting State Department approval.
Meanwhile, the tens of thousands of refugees already in the U.S. are safe for now but unable to settle without clarity on their long-term immigration status.
Around 20,000 evacuees have applied for asylum since arriving in the U.S.; only 5,000 have received approval, according to Safiullah Delawar, the legal director of REACT DC, a Virginia-based resettlement organization created in the wake of the evacuation. Thousands more Afghans have yet to receive updates on their re-parole applications.
Delawar said he is “hoping that [lawmakers] will forget their politics for a while and not sacrifice this humanitarian act” amid short-term partisan fights.
Meanwhile, the families caught in the debate are left with an uncertain future.
“It’s difficult to continue living your life when you don’t know what the next year is going to look like,” said Peter Lucier, a resettlement advocate and Marine veteran who served in Afghanistan. “There are just a whole host of bad things that start happening when parole starts to expire.”
Lucier said companies are less likely to invest in training and certifications for workers who may be forced to leave the country in the next few years. That limits opportunities, which in turn leads to more stress, contributing to a growing number of mental health issues among the refugee community.
“They’re running out of time, and it feels like there’s not a lot of hope for the future,” Rauf said. “The goal is not just to have a job here. It’s to have a life, to have a home here.”
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.
Jaime Moore-Carrillo is an editorial fellow for Military Times and Defense News. A Boston native, Jaime graduated with degrees in international affairs, history, and Arabic from Georgetown University, where he served as a senior editor for the school's student-run paper, The Hoya.