By Arab News
By Kerry Boyd Anderson*
Seven months after the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, more than 76,000 Afghans have entered the US in search of safety. Many Americans have welcomed them and the new arrivals are gradually adapting. However, much uncertainty remains regarding their future.
As the US prepared to leave Afghanistan, it was clear that many Afghans who had worked with the American military or otherwise had links to the country would be in danger. Since 2006, the US has allowed a limited number of Afghans and Iraqis who directly worked for the military or other parts of the American government to apply for a Special Immigrant Visa. Over the years, this program brought several thousand Afghans to the country. However, the numbers were relatively small and the Trump administration added delays and obstacles for applicants. With the sudden collapse of Kabul to the Taliban last year, the situation became desperate. The US was unprepared as thousands of Afghans tried to enter the airport and board flights out of the country.
While many Afghans with ties to the US were left behind, many thousands were evacuated. They have been arriving in the country since last August as part of “Operation Allies Welcome.” Initially, arrivals were processed at nine government sites in the US. Some Afghans were then temporarily housed at US military bases. Others went to stay with family or friends already in the country. The nine official refugee resettlement agencies — nongovernmental organizations that partner with the government to resettle refugees — worked with hundreds of local organizations to help find housing and supplies for other Afghan evacuees. Most of the new arrivals went to northern Virginia, northern California and Texas, which already have established Afghan communities. However, others were dispersed more widely, including to Oklahoma, Michigan and Iowa.
The government has now closed some of the arrival facilities and worked to move families off of military bases. Earlier this month, a new temporary housing facility opened in Leesburg, Virginia, to help process some of those refugees and others arriving from third countries. While many evacuees arrived in the US, some remain in Qatar and other third-country sites. The US government continues to charter Qatar Airways evacuation flights and to process some Afghans in Qatar.
While many evacuees are deeply grateful for the safety offered by the US, they face daunting challenges. Many Afghans arrived with few possessions, left behind loved ones or were separated from family in the chaotic evacuation. They now face a long integration process as they adapt to a new culture, find jobs, enroll in schools, apply for healthcare and, for some, learn English. The pandemic and a shortage of affordable housing have further complicated their adjustment process.
Many Americans stepped up to help the Afghan arrivals meet these challenges. The Trump administration had cut funding and refugee admissions to such an extent that many of the resettlement agencies were operating at a significantly reduced capacity. With the sudden arrival of thousands of Afghans, they ramped up their operations, alongside local partners. Afghan Americans played a key role in helping the evacuees. Across the country, many Americans, nonprofit organizations and religious communities acted quickly to provide funds, find housing, donate supplies and offer services that are critical to meeting the needs of evacuated families and individuals. Polling has shown that a large majority of Americans support allowing Afghans who worked with the US military and other government agencies to resettle in the US.
While many individuals have contributed to helping Afghan arrivals, only the government can solve a particularly difficult challenge: The evacuees’ legal status. Given the urgency and chaos of the evacuation, many Afghans who entered the US lacked a clear immigration status. Many of them were admitted under “humanitarian parole,” an emergency status that allows them to stay in the country for two years but does not offer any path to permanent residency. In March, the Biden administration granted Afghans in the country “temporary protected status,” which somewhat clarifies their position but also does not provide a long-term solution.
The evacuees who lack a visa must now apply for the SIV program or asylum; these pathways offer residency and eventually potential citizenship, but are long, complicated processes with extensive backlogs. Afghans in third countries can apply for the SIV program or refugee resettlement. For evacuees who ended up in locations such as Qatar, the US government is working to expedite these usually lengthy processes. While many of the evacuees in America or abroad will qualify for SIV, asylum or refugee status, some will not meet the narrow requirements, leaving their future unclear.
Advocates for the Afghan evacuees and those who remain in danger in Afghanistan have called on Congress to pass an Afghan Adjustment Act. Several times in the past, Congress has passed legislation that allowed a special path to permanent residency for people who had fled specific situations, such as Cuba, communist Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia at the end of the Vietnam War.
Leaving Afghan evacuees in limbo with an uncertain legal status would add further strain on a traumatized community. Americans have supported evacuating the Afghans and provided money and time to help the arrivals. Now, Congress needs to provide a clear legal path for them so that they can start the process of adapting to a new home with a secure future.
- Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 18 years of experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica. Twitter: @KBAresearch