The chaotic evacuation of Americans and Afghans from a deteriorating Afghanistan played out in real time on television this summer, but for those Afghans who stood up for democracy and civil rights, their new life in America requires a longer-term attention span and a greater commitment.
On Sept. 30, President Joe Biden signed a continuing resolution to keep the U.S. government funded until early December. The spending bill includes $6.3 billion to help resettle a projected 95,000 Afghan evacuees through 2022.
That is a big first step toward providing Afghan evacuees with the support they need. Besides funding, it also expands access to resettlement services and benefits for those now living in the United States.
But Afghans in the U.S. still face unique challenges, chief among which is the lack of any clear pathway to permanent legal status.
If we want Afghan immigrants and refugees to integrate as successfully as possible, Congress must go a step further and allow evacuees to be processed securely but quickly and, ultimately, obtain lawful permanent residence.
While many of those evacuated likely would have been eligible for permanent status through the refugee or special immigrant visa, or SIV, process, those pathways are heavily backlogged and take years to complete. The failure of the Biden administration to heed calls in the spring to ramp up the SIV process made the last-minute evacuation much more complicated. Instead — as in several previous emergency evacuations — U.S. officials have granted entry largely through humanitarian parole.
But under humanitarian parole, Afghan nationals can remain in the U.S. only temporarily; parolees are granted protection from deportation for just two years, during which they are eligible to apply for temporary work authorization.
But these measures don’t provide the firm foundation for a new life that permanent status does. The Afghans being resettled in the U.S. have escaped imminent danger and gone through rigorous vetting procedures; many risked their lives in support of U.S. military efforts. For all intents and purposes, they are refugees. But refugees have access to permanent status, and — without action from Congress — Afghan parolees do not.
No other options currently available are viable. Afghans who aren’t able to complete the SIV process and are ineligible for refugee status could go through the asylum process. But federal agencies will struggle to handle the expected tens of thousands of applicants, given our already overburdened asylum system. A December 2020 U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services report noted that the backlog in asylum applications had grown to more than 350,000 cases. Forcing Afghan evacuees to engage with such a system would be setting them up for failure and frustration.
We need a different solution: a special legal pathway specifically designed for this unique class of people seeking refuge.
An Afghan Adjustment Act would allow evacuees to adjust their status and apply for lawful permanent residence after a certain amount of time in the U.S. It would fulfill our humanitarian obligation to vulnerable Afghans contending with an uncertain future. It would also allow Afghans, particularly those in high-risk groups, an opportunity to rebuild their lives in the U.S. without the hurdles that come with uncertain immigration status. And it would help keep us secure by speeding the integration of evacuees into American society.
Providing this kind of legal pathway has historical precedent. In 1966, Congress passed a bill to allow Cuban parolees who had fled the communist regime to apply for legal permanent residence after one year of residence in the U.S. Likewise, Congress acted in 1977 to allow for more than 150,000 refugees from Southeast Asia to apply for permanent residence.
The resettlement of Afghan evacuees in the U.S. will be the largest undertaking of this type since the Cold War. Given the size and nature of the Afghan evacuee population, an Afghan Adjustment Act would be the most effective and humanitarian solution for the tens of thousands for whom a future in the U.S. is their sole opportunity for safety and freedom. It is also the least our country can do to honor the sacrifices our Afghan allies made to work with the United States in support of democracy and freedom.
Congress should pass an Afghan Adjustment Act.
Stewart Verdery is the CEO and founder of Monument Advocacy and a member of the Council on National Security and Immigration. He previously worked on Capitol Hill and was assistant secretary for border and transportation security policy and planning at the Department of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush.