Skip to content

Congressional effort to help Afghans draws competing bills

Klobuchar offered a bipartisan bill; Cotton has Republican support

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., has four other Democrats and six Republicans co-sponsoring her bill to aid Afghan evacuees.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., has four other Democrats and six Republicans co-sponsoring her bill to aid Afghan evacuees. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

As the two-year anniversary of the U.S. evacuation of Afghanistan nears, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are taking another stab at passing legislation that would put Afghan evacuees on a path to citizenship.

But the Senate, where the discussion about helping thousands of Afghan evacuees is focused, appears divided after senators offered two competing measures last week — one bipartisan and one Republican-led. Immigration advocates say that could hinder progress for both bills, and they warn that a Republican bill sponsored by Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., could slow, or even siphon support from, the bipartisan bill.

“It’s unfortunate to see that effort and the political nature of it,” said Jill Marie Bussey, director for public policy at the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a resettlement organization that has endorsed the bipartisan bill. She said Cotton’s bill “lacks seriousness” and is “a partisan piece of legislation that’s obviously not going to go anywhere.”

The bipartisan bill, known as the Afghan Adjustment Act, was reintroduced July 13 by five Republicans and five Democrats to offer relief to tens of thousands of Afghans evacuated to the United States after the military’s August 2021 withdrawal. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., is the sponsor.

The House has a counterpart measure introduced the same day by Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, R-Iowa, and boasting nearly two dozen co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle.

The Klobuchar and Miller-Meeks bills, first proposed last year, would allow Afghan evacuees, many of whom are living in the U.S. under temporary immigration protections, to apply for permanent residency if they submit to additional vetting. It would also expand eligibility for special immigrant visas to allow more Afghans still abroad and at risk to come to the United States. 

The bill has the backing of dozens of veterans groups, immigrant advocacy organizations and religious nonprofits.

Cotton and three Senate Republicans introduced, also on July 13, another version of a bill to help Afghan allies. Their bill would similarly provide a path to permanent residency for vetted evacuees, and instead of expanding the special immigrant visa program it would make at-risk Afghans eligible for a certain refugee status. 

But Cotton’s bill includes provisions that would curb the Biden administration’s powers under a legal authority known as parole. The federal government uses that authority to allow certain categories of migrants to enter the country temporarily. It has been the basis for the programs allowing migrants from Nicaragua, Haiti, Venezuela and Cuba to come to the U.S. legally. 

Potential vehicle in defense policy bill

Both Senate proposals were also filed as potential amendments to the defense authorization bill. The Senate is currently voting on amendments to the NDAA.

Senators have been negotiating over legislation to help Afghan evacuees since the beginning of the year, but it recently became clear the group wouldn’t be able to move forward together once Cotton decided to include the parole provision a few months ago, according to a Senate aide familiar with the talks.

Two Republicans, Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Thom Tillis of North Carolina, have signed on to both measures. Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, is also a co-sponsor of Cotton’s bill. 

The provision limiting parole could be popular with congressional Republicans who have frequently raised concerns about the Biden administration’s use of that authority, but it would also likely doom the bill’s chances in the Democrat-controlled Senate. 

Jennifer Quigley, senior director of government affairs at nonprofit group Human Rights First, called the parole limit a “poison pill” and said Republicans’ decision to propose their own bill is “quite frustrating.” 

“Biden is not going to sign a bill that limits the president’s parole authority,” Quigley said. “That’s a separate issue. That’s not what this bill is about.” 

The two competing bills could also confuse messaging around the issue, particularly if one were to pass the Senate and advance to the Republican-controlled House, some advocates said. If Senate Republicans strongly back the rejected option, it could be harder to persuade House Republicans to support the alternative.

Yael Schacher, director for the Americas and Europe at Refugees International, said advocates may have to invest more in meeting with other Republican offices to sway them to back the bipartisan version over Cotton’s. 

“I don’t think it necessarily dooms the [bipartisan] bill. I think it’s distracting, and it requires advocates to really do a lot more meetings,” Schacher said. 

Uniting forces

Senators expressed optimism this week that the two groups could ultimately come together. 

“I think that we’ll come together. I think there’ll be a single effort and we’ll coordinate our activity,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a co-sponsor of the bipartisan bill.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., another co-sponsor of the bipartisan bill, struck a similar note. “I think there’s a lot of work to be done in this area. And hopefully we can all cooperate and actually get something done,” she said. 

Sens. Tillis and Graham, who signed on to both measures, waved off concerns that the two bills could divide support. 

“It is really important we help these people with no place to go,” Graham said, adding that he hopes “we can find a way to bring all of our forces together to get this done.” 

Tillis also said he didn’t think senators “have to make an either-or decision” about the two measures. 

“My staff asked me: Why did I want to go on both bills? I said because I’m sympathetic to both of them and we need to do something,” Tillis said. 

Tillis, who has engaged in bipartisan immigration negotiations in the past, cautioned that he doesn’t think immigration issues “are very ripe for this Congress for a variety of reasons,” but he also said the effort to provide status for Afghans “is a unique circumstance.” 

Laurence Benenson, vice president of policy and advocacy at the National Immigration Forum, suggested that the presence of two bills to help Afghans demonstrates the interest in the issue across the political spectrum. 

“I think we’ll need to see how it plays out. Certainly if this becomes a situation where it’s seen as a Republican proposal and then a competing Democratic proposal, and the parties head to their respective corners, that’s a problem,” Benenson said. 

“We’re just hopeful that, given the widespread recognition of a need to provide adjustment of status of Afghans, that supporters of both bills can figure out a way to address this important problem.” 

Recent Stories

Strange things are afoot at the Capitol

Photos of the week ending May 24, 2024

Getting down on the Senate floor — Congressional Hits and Misses

US-China tech race will determine values that shape the future

What’s at stake in Texas runoff elections on Tuesday

Democrats decry ‘very, very harmful’ riders in Legislative Branch bill