Afghan refugees in US face uncertainty as legislation stalls
US Congress is still failing to create a path to residency for Afghans who worked alongside U.S. soldiers in America's longest war, pushing into limbo tens of thousands of refugees who fled Taliban control more than a year ago.
Some lawmakers had hoped to resolve the Afghans' immigration status as part of a year-end government funding package. But that effort failed, punting the issue into the new year, when Republicans will take power in the House. The result is grave uncertainty for refugees now facing an August deadline for action from Congress before their temporary parole status expires.
Nearly 76,000 Afghans who worked with American soldiers since 2001 as translators, interpreters and partners arrived in the U.S. on military planes after the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021.
The government admitted the refugees on a temporary parole status as part of Operation Allies Welcome, the largest resettlement effort in the country in decades, with the promise of a path to a life in the U.S. for their service.
Mohammad Behzad Hakkak, 30, is among those Afghans waiting for resolution, unable to work or settle down in his new community in Fairfax, Virginia, under his parole status. Hakkak worked as a partner to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan as a human rights defender in the now-defunct Afghan government.
“We lost everything in Afghanistan” after the Taliban returned to power, he said. “And now, we don’t know about our future here.”
For the past year, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, backed by veterans organizations and former military officials, has pushed Congress to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act, which would prevent the Afghans from becoming stranded without legal residency status when their two years of humanitarian parole expire in August 2023. It would enable qualified Afghans to apply for U.S. citizenship, as was done for refugees in the past, including those from Cuba, Vietnam and Iraq.
Supporters of the proposal thought it might clear Congress after the November election because it enjoys overwhelming bipartisan support. But they said their efforts were thwarted by one man: Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which oversees immigration issues.
“We've never seen support for a piece of legislation like this and it not pass,” said Shawn Van Diver, a Navy veteran and head of #AfghanEvac, a coalition supporting Afghan resettlement efforts. “It’s really frustrating to me that one guy from Iowa can block this."
Grassley has argued for months that the bill as written goes too far by including evacuees beyond those “who were our partners over the last 20 years," providing a road to residency without the proper screening required.
“First of all, people that help our country should absolutely have the promise that we made to them," Grassley told The Associated Press. "There’s some disagreement on the vetting process. That’s been a problem and that hasn’t been worked out yet.”
Proponents of the legislation reject those concerns. More than 30 retired military officers, including three former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote Congress saying the bill not only “furthers the national security interests of the United States,” but is also ”a moral imperative."