Tens of Thousands of Afghans Work Their Way Through US Immigration System

More than a year after the U.S. military withdrew from Afghanistan, tens of thousands of Afghan families totaling more than 88,500 individuals have resettled in the United States through different immigration paths.

Some have access to permanent residence while the rest have permission for short-term stays without the chance for a more permanent status unless they apply for asylum or Congress passes legislation to change their status.

For those with temporary status, their best hope to stay is the Afghan Adjustment Act, draft legislation that would give Afghan evacuees with temporary status a pathway to permanent U.S. residence. Although the measure has been introduced in both chambers, it has yet to come up for a vote.

After the evacuation of Kabul in August 2021, the Biden administration partnered with nonprofit organizations to give Afghan refugees temporary assistance with housing, food and clothing and also help them to secure employment and qualify for health care.

Special Immigrant Visa

Approved by Congress more than a decade ago, the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) is for Afghans who worked as interpreters or guides for the U.S. military or were employed by the U.S. government or on its behalf in Afghanistan during the 20-year war. The SIV program leads to permanent residence and a path to naturalization for those Afghans and their families.

The number of SIVs available to people in Afghanistan is set by statute, and Congress can increase the number. In 2021, Congress approved 8,000 SIVs for Afghan principal applicants, bringing the total to 34,500 since 2014.

Since the start of the Biden administration through Nov. 1, 2022, the State Department has issued nearly 19,000 SIVs to principal applicants and their eligible family members, a department spokesperson told VOA on background via email. About 15,000 more SIV principal applicants are awaiting visa interviews, the step before being issued an SIV. About 48,000 more have submitted all of their documents and are awaiting the next step in the approval process.

The SIV program stumbled in the six months following the Taliban takeover in August 2021. During the evacuation, the program for Afghan nationals nearly ground to a halt when the U.S. embassy in Afghanistan suspended operations.

Afghan consular services were transferred outside Afghanistan. While some Afghans traveled to Pakistan to process their immigration cases and visa applications, some were flown to Qatar where they were processed for resettlement in the U.S.

A U.S. Department of Homeland Security spokesperson, who spoke to VOA in November on background and did not want to be named, said that of the 88,500 Afghans who resettled in the U.S., more than 77,000 were allowed into the U.S. for humanitarian reasons on a case-by-case basis. About half of them could be eligible to apply for or continue the SIV process in the United States.

Humanitarian parole

Humanitarian parole is special permission given to those hoping to enter the United States under emergency circumstances.

In the last 16 months, more than 50,000 Afghans living outside the United States applied for humanitarian parole, but fewer than 500 have been approved.

The DHS spokesperson told VOA that in a typical year, the United States receives about 2,000 requests for humanitarian parole from all nationalities. Of those requests, about 500-700 are approved annually. There are several reasons applicants are rejected, but most often it’s because they could not prove they were in an emergency situation.

The DHS official told VOA that humanitarian parole is not intended to replace the refugee resettlement channel, including the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP), which is the typical pathway for individuals who have fled their country of origin to come to the United States seeking protection.

Still, the DHS official said, the U.S. government recognizes that in some limited circumstances, the need for protection is “so urgent that obtaining protection via the USRAP is not a realistic option,” because some refugees are not able to leave their countries and start the application process.

Humanitarian parole for Afghans living outside the U.S. is still available, but according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the agency is “currently receiving an extremely high number of requests for parole” and that “petitioners should expect to wait significantly longer than 90 days for their parole request to be processed.”

Afghan evacuees who arrived in the U.S. without a visa or any proper documentation had to file for humanitarian parole because of the urgent humanitarian reasons at the time. They were given parole under the authority delegated to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Officers use discretion to grant humanitarian parole if the person requesting protection is at a U.S. Port of Entry.

To qualify for humanitarian parole, a foreign national must show examples of the urgent humanitarian circumstances they find themselves in, and it is limited to one year, but U.S. immigration officials can extend it another year.

Anyone admitted under the humanitarian parole designation is temporarily protected from deportation and allowed to apply for authorization to work. Humanitarian Parole does not confer permanent immigration status or constitute a path to U.S. citizenship.

Family reunification

On Nov. 14, the State Department launched a website with information for Afghans in the U.S. who want to reunite with family members still in Afghanistan.

Afghans who are naturalized U.S. citizens or who hold a lawful permanent residence card, also known as green card, can file petitions with the government to bring their direct relatives to the U.S. under immigrant visas that lead to permanent status.

Afghans who received humanitarian parole can petition to bring their spouse or minor children to the U.S. as refugees. Some may even be eligible to receive help from the U.S. government to leave Afghanistan.

The number of applications under family reunification was not readily available.

Refugee program

This August, the State Department announced a priority eligibility under the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program for Afghans who worked for the U.S. government, U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations, or American news organizations.

The program provides a straightforward path to the refugee resettlement process, but the refugees must, on their own, first reach a third country where they can contact the State Department to begin the resettlement process.

According to DHS, the State Department is managing referrals to the refugee program, but there generally is no direct contact with the U.S. government before an applicant leaves Afghanistan.

Approved applicants will then receive travel documents and resettle in the United States.

Under U.S. immigration law, refugees may apply for green cards to become permanent residents after one year in the United States. After five years of permanent residency, they can apply for U.S. citizenship.

In the first two months of fiscal 2023, which began Oct. 1, 540 Afghans were resettled through the program. In fiscal 2022, that number was 1,618. In the last two months of fiscal 2021, which coincided with the Afghanistan evacuation efforts, 378 Afghan refugees resettled in the U.S.

Asylum

Afghans in the U.S. who are unable to become permanent residents can apply for asylum. Afghan humanitarian parolees would generally apply for affirmative asylum through a process done by the USCIS.

According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, in general, “affirmative asylum cases have a somewhat lower average wait time,” but the current interview backlog is still at 1.6 million cases of asylum and other immigration applications.

The wait time for a hearing on an immigrant’s asylum claim is between two to six years. 

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