Afghan Evacuees Are Here: What’s Next?

By Kylie McNamara.

Over the past few weeks, the world has watched chaos unfold in Afghanistan. The Taliban has taken control of the country, causing Afghan men, women, and children to flee. The media shared images of desperate scenes at Kabul’s airport where an explosion killed many, including thirteen United States servicemembers. As of September 8, more than 124,000 individuals have been evacuated from Afghanistan—a number that is expected to grow. At least one report has identified Phoenix as the most ideal American city for Afghans’ resettlement. On August 29, Arizona received its first group of this new wave of Afghan refugees. Their arrival naturally leads to the question—what is next?

A Survey of the Options

After experiencing a tumultuous exit from their home country, likely leaving with few belongings, it is important that Afghans who resettle in the U.S. are given ample opportunity to establish a new life. A variety of ideas and opinions exist on how to best go about this process.

A select group of Afghans who worked for the U.S. military, like as translators or drivers, qualify for a Special Immigrant Visa (“SIV”). These individuals’ family members can also obtain this visa, which offers an avenue to citizenship and permanent residence. However, the process of acquiring an SIV has been described as “painfully slow” so far in 2021. Furthermore, the majority of Afghans now entering the United States do not qualify for an SIV. If no new policies or laws are introduced, those without an SIV must apply for asylum or permanent immigration status—a process that can take years. And currently, the United States’ immigration system is suffering from backlogs and understaffing.

  1. A) Calls for Congressional Action

On September 7, 2021, President Biden called for the passage of a law that grants green cards to evacuees from Kabul who are in the United States “on temporary humanitarian grounds.” He requested that $6.4 billion be allocated toward resettlement efforts. Those efforts include supporting operations on U.S. military bases housing evacuees, speeding up immigration paperwork processing, and providing benefits for Afghans upon arrival in the U.S. The White House’s request would allow for paroled refugees to receive benefits and assistance that they would otherwise be ineligible for, like food programs and Medicaid. The request has faced some pushback. Senator Tom Cotton expressed concern over Biden’s desire “to award unlimited green cards to people who didn’t serve alongside our troops” and who could threaten U.S. safety. But if Biden’s proposal is adopted, refugees receiving benefits will undergo background checks or screenings, and they will be subject to random follow-up screenings and checks carried out by Homeland Security.

Some have suggested that Congress pass legislation similar to the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, which could help reduce backlogs in immigration and asylum paperwork. This Act allowed hundreds of thousands of Cubans to legally enter the U.S., and after one year, apply for a green card. A similar scenario occurred in the 1970s and 1980s, during which special admissions programs and the 1980 Refugee Act allowed about one million refugees from Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam to enter the U.S. These instances demonstrate that large-scale resettlement to the U.S. can be successfully accomplished. In line with their past actions, Congress could pass legislation to expedite the resettlement process for Afghan evacuees. It seems highly unlikely that Afghan evacuees will be able to return safely to their country. The sooner they are safe, stable, and receiving necessary help and guidance in the U.S., the sooner they can begin supporting themselves and rebuilding their lives.

  1. B) What if Congress Fails to Pass New Legislation?

The 1980 Refugee Act allows certain presidential acts in the absence of congressional action. Broadly speaking, the Act established a process that facilitates U.S. reception of refugees—in both ordinary times and in times of crisis—and it places them on a path to citizenship. The Act also allows the President to raise the number of refugees that the country can admit. It has been suggested that Biden should use the Act to expedite Afghan refugees’ processing, as was done in 1999 with Kosovar refugees

The idea of “humanitarian parole” has also been discussed, which would grant a form of parole to Afghans who pass screening tests. The primary benefit of this system is that it allows individuals to legally enter the U.S. However, it only allows one to do so temporarily, and it lacks benefits that come with formal refugee status, such as eligibility for work authorizations, employment programs, and Medicaid. This seems like a significant drawback of humanitarian parole. Biden’s proposal may address this issue, as his plan involves giving certain benefits to paroled refugees, but additional congressional action would likely be needed to ensure Afghan evacuees have enough resources to survive and thrive once in the U.S.  

Why Help?

For years, many Afghans were allies to the U.S. military in Afghanistan. These individuals served in an array of positions, including translators, U.S. contractors, drivers, and embassy workers. Others provided direct support to military operations. Even those who did not directly aid our military should be assisted. Poverty levels have been rising in Afghanistan since the Taliban took over; by this winter, millions of Afghans may not have enough food to survive. The U.S. has extensive vetting procedures in place for newcomers, and arguably, as a country of great wealth and strength, it is our moral obligation to support others in times of need, especially those fleeing violence, poverty, and persecution.

Conclusion

While humanitarian parole and aspects of the Refugee Act can be implemented without congressional action, legislation seems necessary to ensure that adequate assistance is given to Afghan evacuees. Those coming to Arizona and other states will not face an easy road, regardless of what governmental steps are taken; there will still likely be years of backlogs in the U.S. immigration system. In the meantime, it is important that Afghans are welcomed and supported in their new communities, whether that is Arizona or beyond. 

Please Note: This is an ongoing issue. Circumstances discussed will continue to evolve after the publication of this post. 

"Afghan refugees: The path home" by EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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By Kylie McNamara

J.D. Candidate 2023

Kylie McNamara is a 2L Staff Writer from New Orleans, Louisiana. She graduated from Tulane University in 2020 with her B.A. in Political Science and a minor in Social Innovation & Social Entrepreneurship. In her free time, Kylie enjoys finding great brunch spots, hiking, going on day trips in Arizona, and cheering on the New Orleans Saints.

The opinions expressed herein are those of the individual contributors to the ASLJ Blog and should not be construed as the opinions of the Arizona State Law Journal or the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University.