Thousands of Afghans are looking for refuge in the U.S. But the immigration process isn't simple.

Rebecca Morin

WASHINGTON – Thousands of Afghans who helped aid the U.S. military or are vulnerable in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan are arriving in the United States, where they are staying in military bases, at convention centers and even some community colleges as they await their next move.

But as they prepare to rebuild their lives in a foreign country, Afghans face a two-pronged issue: Trying to get out of their native country safely and then completely restarting their lives in a new home where they likely have few personal connections.

The process to get Afghan nationals out of the country has been riddled with setbacks and issues for many, from unfinished applicant paperwork to the Taliban blocking vulnerable Afghans from getting to the Kabul airport. Once they arrive in the U.S., nonprofit groups and non-governmental organizations are working feverishly to get Afghans placed in a community so they could rebuild their life.

“This is just deja vu all over again from 20 years ago, when Pakistan and Iran and other countries in the region had to host millions of Afghans who fled the Taliban and now here we are back again in a situation where people will once again be fleeing, and they're going to need international protection and some need it more immediately than others,” said Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, an immigrant aid organization.

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The Biden administration has an Aug. 31 deadline to evacuate U.S. citizens and others who qualify for U.S. protection, which President Joe Biden said the United States is on track to meet. Since Aug. 14, the United States has evacuated or helped facilitate the evacuation of nearly 90,000 people from Afghanistan. 

“The sooner we can finish, the better,” Biden said this week.

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The process of getting to the U.S. 

The United States is having evacuees from Afghanistan flown to countries in Europe and Asia that have agreed to serve as transit hubs. There, refugees undergo biometric and security screenings by officials from the intelligence, counterterrorism and law enforcement communities before they are put on flights to the United States.

Upon arrival in the U.S., all evacuees must be tested for COVID-19 at the airport. The Biden administration will offer vaccinations to them but is still figuring out how and when those shots will be made available, a senior administration official said Tuesday.

Once tested, American citizens and lawful permanent residents can travel to their destination. All others will be sent to one of four military bases in New Jersey, Virginia, Texas or Wisconsin, where they will undergo a full medical screening, be given access to other health-care-services and be provided with assistance in other areas, such as how to apply for work authorization. 

The senior administration official could not provide details on how long the evacuees will remain at the military bases, but said the plan isn't for them to “be at military installations for months or anything like that. The plan is to move people efficiently.”

The Defense Department is looking at possibly adding military bases to the list of installations that will temporarily house the evacuees, the official said. 

Each arriving family will be connected with one of the refugee settlement organizations that partner with the federal government to help them settle into their new lives in the United States, the official said.

Afghan refugees arrive at a processing center in Chantilly, Va., Monday, Aug. 23, 2021, after arriving on a flight at Dulles International Airport. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Hefield said right now many aid organizations are looking for people to host Afghan families, as well as donate clothes and food. While some activists say the goal is to have Afghans on their feet within three to six months, some know that the process will be long and difficult.

“We're gonna all be in this for the long haul. This is an immediate crisis but it's not going to have an immediate solution,” Hetfield said. “We are going to have thousands of Afghans coming over to the United States who desperately will need to be welcomed here.”

Many Afghans who are coming to the United States are going to need clothes, food and basic necessities like cleaning supplies and toiletries, said Krishanti O'Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

"This is a unique situation because families traveling on C-17 planes are coming with next to nothing," she said. 

Vignarajah noted that some Afghans may not have finished the special immigrant visa (SIV) process and will likely be coming to the United States through humanitarian parole, which allows those in an emergency situation to temporarily stay in the United States. She said her organization will offer legal services to Afghans in that situation in hopes of reclassifying those immigrating into a longer-term status.

Hundreds of volunteers have found affordable apartments or are offering up empty rooms in their homes to help Afghans get settled in,said Vignarajah. Organizations like LIRS are also trying to help them get settled by enrolling them in English classes, as well as helping them navigate public benefits like Social Security and Medicaid. 

"They're experiencing everything from relief and hope for a safer brighter future, but also a strong sense of sadness for the life and family they're leaving behind," Vignarajah said.

Hundreds of people gather outside the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 17. The Taliban declared an “amnesty” across Afghanistan and urged women to join their government, seeking to convince a wary population that they have changed as desperate crowds tried to flee the country.

Issues facing Afghans trying to get out of country

While thousands of Afghans have gotten out of Afghanistan, there are still many who have been left behind. The Taliban announced Tuesday they were "not allowing the evacuation of Afghans anymore," and called on those who have crowded the airport in Kabul to return home.

Stephen Yale-Loehr, professor of immigration law at Cornell Law School, said the United States is going to see a lot of Afghans try to come to the United States and the Biden administration will likely see pressure to make it easier for people at risk to come to the U.S.

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But Yale-Loehr warned that the current options for Afghans are limited or complicated due to the current state of Afghanistan. Some options that vulnerable people could take include applying to be a refugee or applying for the SIV program. The Biden administration has said they will get out all American citizens who wish to leave, legal permanent residents and all SIV applicants. 

"Once screened and cleared, we will welcome these Afghans, who helped us in the war effort over the last 20 years, to their new home in the United States of America," Biden said. "Because that's who we are."

There is also a limited number of refugee slots available for the Afghanistan region, Yale-Loehr noted. For the Near East/South Asia region, which includes Afghanistan, there is a refugee cap of 13,000 this year. The president determines the number of refugees allowed to come to the U.S and for fiscal year 2021, Biden sent the cap for all refugees at 62,500.

He promised earlier this year to expand the cap to 125,000 admissions for the next fiscal year.

There has also been concern for applicants of the SIV program, who are mostly Afghan translators or others who worked with the U.S. government or military, many of whom have struggled to get to the Kabul airport for evacuation. The Biden administration has vowed to get every SIV applicant out of the country.

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Yale-Loehr noted that the Biden administration could also offer humanitarian parole to Afghan citizens, which allows people to come temporarily to the United States when facing issues in their home country. 

Humanitarian parole is a different process than coming to the U.S. as a refugee.

Those who are coming as refugees can come as priority 1, which means they are individuals who have been referred by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, a U.S. embassy, or certain NGOs, or as priority 2, which includes individuals who are included as special humanitarian concerns. The State Department said this month that individuals who were contractors, interpreters and translators who worked for the U.S. government, military, the International Security Assistance Force, or a U.S. government funded program but did not meet the minimum time required for the SIV program would qualify as priority 2.

Parole only offers temporary protection for those who do not qualify for a visa and are in an emergency situation.

There are several examples in United States’ history that set precedent to offering parole, Yale-Loehr said. In 1956, the United States offered humanitarian parole to roughly 30,000 people during the Hungarian revolution. After the fall of Saigon during the Vietnam war in 1975, the United States sent at-risk Vietnamese citizens to Guam so they could be processed for admission to the United States.

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“The Biden administration could say, ‘yes, if you can get out of Afghanistan, we are happy to give you parole to allow you to enter the United States,’” Yale-Loehr said.

DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas is using his humanitarian paroleauthority to allow for some some individuals, the senior administration official said Tuesday. Some individuals who have pending SIV applications are coming to the U.S. through the parole option, the official said. 

Earlier this week, 46 senators in a letter called on the Biden administration to offer humanitarian parole so Afghan women leaders, human rights activists and other public figures could quickly and efficiently relocate to the United States.

“We are gravely concerned about the safety of women leaders, activists, judges, parliamentarians, and human rights defenders,” wrote in a letter. “The shocking violence and alleged atrocities occurring have caused mass displacement which, during a global pandemic and severe drought, has created a major humanitarian crisis.”

Afghan immigration becoming politicized

The number of Afghan refugees coming to the United States is also becoming increasingly politicized.

Several conservatives have criticized the increased number of Afghans coming to the United States. Steve Cortes, who was an advisor to former President Donald Trump, in a viral tweet shared an image of hundreds of Afghan citizens crowded on a plane. 

“Raise your hand if you want this plane landing in your town?,” Cortes said in the tweet.

Some Republicans are also voicing their skepticism on whether Afghans coming to the United States are being properly vetted.

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"While many of the Afghanistan people are good people, there are bad ones too who do not like Americans or our Western way of life,” J.D. Vance, a Republican running for Senate in Ohio, said in a statement earlier this week. “Resettling them in the United States so that our country becomes a refugee camp is not the answer.”

The criticisms come as Biden is already facing backlash for how he handled the increased number of migrants coming to the U.S.-Mexico border. 

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However, there have been some governors, including Republicans, who have expressed willingness to accept Afghans coming to their state.

“The Biden administration is going to have to walk a tightrope politically,” Yale-Loehr said. “The Biden administration has to assure the public that on the one hand they are continuing to vet all refugee applicants, and make sure that they’re not terrorist threats. On the other hand, they’re trying to do so quickly so that they can get people out of harm's way. 

“And that's a tough task,” Yale-Loehr said.

Contributing: Michael Collins

Reach Rebecca Morin at Twitter @RebeccaMorin_