WASHINGTON – Thousands of Afghan evacuees have resettled into the United States, but the temporary nature of their legal status could hinder their adjustment to the country now and in the coming years, experts say.
The U.S. withdrawal of troops and the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan forced hundreds of thousands of Afghan people to flee their country in August.
Thousands of Afghan evacuees initially came to military bases in the United States, where they received screenings, security clearances, vaccinations and health care.
And thousands of other Afghan evacuees — many of them hoping to eventually resettle in the United States — were also relocated to American military bases around the world.
Some still eagerly wait to leave Afghanistan.
The stopgap government spending bill signed by President Joe Biden last week included $7 billion for four federal agencies to help in relocating Afghan refugees.
Many Afghan evacuee families who initially arrived to military bases in the United States are just now being relocated to resettlement agencies across the country, according to Stephen Carattini, president and CEO of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington.
The Arlington diocese has helped resettle hundreds of Afghan evacuees and anticipates hundreds more in the coming weeks, providing services including workforce preparation, mental health counseling, free medical clinics and legal immigration consultations.
The majority of Afghan evacuees arrive here under humanitarian parole status, which only entitles them to two years of temporary legal protection, a situation that can hinder their housing and work opportunities.
“These individuals — we do not want (them) to go home; we want them to stay; they’re political refugees, essentially, who helped us in our foreign policy fights, yet the legal status doesn’t allow them to plan the future with any type of certainty,” said Stewart Verdery, who served under President George W. Bush as assistant secretary for border and transportation security policy and planning at the Department of Homeland Security.
“We have other people who come to the United States (who) are designed to be temporary workers, or they’re visiting temporarily, and they’re supposed to go home; this is not the case here,” said Verdery, who is also a member of the Council on National Security and Immigration and the CEO and founder of Monument Advocacy, a bipartisan consulting firm.
An “Afghan Adjustment Act” could provide a more long-term solution for Afghan evacuees in a state of limbo because of the temporary nature of their humanitarian parole status, according to Verdery.
“It’s a pretty simple legal change; it just basically provides them a place in line for a green card that currently they don’t have as being admitted on parole, which doesn’t provide you any legal status,” he said.
And some organizations, such as the International Refugee Assistance Project, are advocating for Congress to take action that would provide a more long-term solution to Afghan evacuees’ uncertain legal status.
“We’ve been pushing for an act of Congress that would provide that kind of blanket adjustment of status for folks who came in as part of the evacuation and were paroled into the United States, to have their status adjusted so that they have a long-term durable status,” said Elizabeth Foydel, private sponsorship program director for the International Refugee Assistance Project.
The nonprofit, based in New York City, provides legal aid for refugees and other forcibly displaced people around the world and pushes for immigration policy changes at the federal level.
“But the challenges haven’t ended since the formal U.S. withdrawal concluded,” Foydel said, who also emphasized the legal challenges for those still living in Afghanistan.
“So, over the past couple of months since, there (have) been…clients and family members in Afghanistan for whom we’re trying to think through long-term solutions, and….we still have a significant amount of advocacy around evacuation, as well as what’s happening to the folks who are evacuated once they evacuated,” Foydel said.
The temporary legal protections for Afghan evacuees can also create additional barriers toward securing affordable housing.
“What’s unusual in our case is that…because of the lack of affordable housing in the area…only people with primary ties can ask to be resettled in Northern Virginia,” Carattini said. The region has a significant Afghan community.
“If (Afghan evacuees) do not have a primary tie in the United States, then they are assigned to resettlement agencies in parts of the country where there is more available housing and employment,” Carattini said.
Sarah Sheffer, senior communications adviser for Welcome.US, said finding affordable housing has been a challenge for the Afghan evacuees they have assisted.
Welcome.US is a broad coalition that began in September to support the resettlement of Afghan evacuees in the United States.
“We are welcoming tens of thousands of newcomers into our communities at a point when our resettlement infrastructure…has been substantially diminished,” Sheffer said.
“And we are facing things all Americans are facing, like a shortage of affordable housing, and we know that’s being coupled with the difficulty of renting to families who have no credit history coming into the United States, so housing has been a really critical challenge to getting people off bases and into homes that are suitable and safe,” Sheffer said.
But local resettlement agencies are looking for ways to tackle affordable housing issues for Afghan evacuees.
The Maryland-based Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service has partnered with the rental company Airbnb. The organization also educates landlords to better understand the Afghan evacuees who are adjusting to life in a completely new environment.
Since Afghan evacuees arrived, many have had to endure separation from their family and friends who remain in Afghanistan.
The evacuees chaotically rushed out of Afghanistan without any time for proper goodbyes.
“We’ve seen many husbands and wives where the husband is here, but the wife is still in Kabul or the other way around, or grandparents…there’s a lot of concern for family members (who) are left behind, whether or not and when they will see them again, so it was not an orderly departure,” Carattini said.
“It was not (as if) everyone had time to get their affairs in order, say their goodbyes and even the idea that ‘hey, we’ll come back and visit you kind of thing’ — none of that happened,” he said.
And some evacuees in the United States with family members left behind in Afghanistan might be worried about their loved ones facing retribution from the Taliban, according to Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.
The organization has resettled nearly 200 Afghan humanitarian parolees and 60 Afghan Special Immigrant Visa holders since the initial evacuation and expects to resettle roughly 2,500 more parolees in Maryland.
“I think one concern is just making sure that we can help — not just provide a roof over (evacuees’) heads and food in their fridges — but also trauma-informed care that recognizes the psychological and emotional kind of turmoil that they’ve been through,” Vignarajah said.
Thousands more Afghan evacuees at U.S. military bases abroad are expected to arrive in the United States in the coming months, in addition to those still living in Afghanistan.
“It’s never easy to be a refugee; it’s never easy to be displaced (and) find yourself in a new place,” Carattini said. “And then to have done this through COVID — it’s really, really hard.”