Congress again attempting to address Afghan refugee status

By FATEMA HOSSEINI

WASHINGTON – More than two years after the final U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan, over 70,000 refugees from that nation are living in a legal limbo that Congress has yet to change.

But bipartisan legislation, known as the Afghan Adjustment Act (AAA), was introduced in July in the Senate and the House. It would provide Afghans who sought refuge in the United States with a pathway to apply for permanent legal residency.

Afghan refugees living in the United States currently are under humanitarian parole, a temporary status not equated with permanent residency.

“Giving our Afghan allies a chance to apply for legal status is the right and necessary thing to do,” stated Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, and chief sponsor of the Senate bill. “This bipartisan legislation will help provide Afghans who have sacrificed so much for our country with the legal certainty they deserve as they rebuild their lives.”  

Similar legislation was introduced in the last session of Congress but stalled over objections from some Republicans.

“The AAA is not simply an immigration bill,” Eskinder Negash, president and CEO of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, said in a statement. “The AAA is essential to fulfilling the United States’ commitments to its national security partners and allies from America’s longest war, which will affect U.S. foreign policy and security in all future conflicts and engagements.”

Under the legislation, Afghans on humanitarian status who undergo additional vetting, including an in-person interview, would be allowed to apply for permanent legal status. This is a significant shift from the current law, which primarily offers permanent status through the asylum system or the burdensome Special Immigrant Visa program for those who worked directly with U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The legislation broadens the eligibility for the program to include groups such as the Afghan National Army Special Operations Command and the Female Tactical Teams of Afghanistan.

The Senate measure has 13 co-sponsors from both parties, while the House companion bill has 45 Democratic and Republican co-sponsors. Klobuchar last summer tried to get the legislation included in a defense policy bill but was blocked by Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas.

Even so, Klobuchar is optimistic about the legislation’s prospects.

“We’re working on it,” the senator told Capital News Service on Thursday. “We hope to attach it to one of the end-of-the-year bills.”

Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, and one of the bill’s co-sponsors told an audience in his home state in October that objections were being addressed in talks about the measure.

“It’s like every immigration bill in the United States, in Congress,” Moran said, according to Kansas Reflector. “It is picked to death, and nothing seems to happen. The goal is to have this bill completed by the end of the year.” 

“The United States is deeply grateful to the Afghan nationals who risked their lives to advance the U.S. mission in Afghanistan over two decades,” said Sen. Van Hollen, D-Maryland, who supports the legislation. “Passing the bipartisan Afghan Adjustment Act would demonstrate this gratitude by providing our Afghan allies who have sought refuge in our country with a reliable path to living legally and safely in America.”

However, some GOP lawmakers have raised objections over the Afghan refugee bill because of broader concerns over the state of the U.S. immigration system.

Sen. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma, pointed out the stark increase in overall asylum requests, framing it as a testament to the system’s dysfunction.

“In 2010, we had 21,000 asylum requests for the year across our Southwest border; now we often have that in three days. It’s an enormous shift,” Lankford said during an Oct. 1 hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which was exploring threats to the United States. “Our entire immigration system is broken. There’s unanimity about that.”

Sen. Rick Scott, R-Florida, said at the hearing thorough vetting was critical, citing the potential dangers posed by individuals from countries with histories of anti-Semitism and hostility toward the American way of life.

Referencing data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Scott highlighted the significant number of Afghan nationals admitted to the United States.

“That’s almost 77,000 people from Afghanistan, largely unvetted, as well as 659 from Iran and 538 from Syria,” the senator said. “Remember it took 19 terrorists to do 9/11.”

Vetting also was Cotton’s concern in his move to block Klobuchar from including her bill in a defense policy measure.

“We should provide (the Afghans) with legal stability and a path to successfully integrate into the U.S., but we can’t cut corners or risk giving green cards to terrorists embedded in the evacuated masses,” Cotton’s office said in a statement.

But Mahdi Rasikh, a former member of the Afghan Parliament and now a parolee, said Afghans have been a positive presence in the United States, emphasizing that many Afghans stood against terrorism for two decades and now deserve the American government’s support.

“Many Afghan parolees awaiting asylum decisions are facing uncertainty and, as a result, mental health challenges due to the loss of their homes and separation from loved ones who remain in Afghanistan or in unsafe third countries,” Rasikh said. “If the act fails to pass, it risks breeding mistrust among those who assisted foreign troops, including the U.S. government.”

Daniel Salazar, policy analyst at USCRI, said American officials showed due diligence in vetting Afghans despite the chaotic nature of the evacuation.

“Afghan parolees overwhelmingly were processed and vetted when they were at the airport in Kabul, vetted and processed further at overseas military bases called lily pads in the initial kind of stages after the evacuation, and then they were processed domestically,” Salazar explained.

He added that if there are any worries regarding the thoroughness of the vetting process, the Afghan Adjustment Act offers a solution, which is the requirement for the Afghan parolees to complete a further vetting procedure to transition their status to that of a lawful permanent resident.

Fatema Hosseini, who reports for the Washington Bureau of Capital News Service, formerly was a full-time journalist for more than two-and-a-half years for Kabul Now, a leading Afghan news organization. She was evacuated from Afghanistan during the U.S. military withdrawal from that country, first going to Ukraine and later arriving in the United States on Sept. 11, 2021.

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