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The Afghan Adjustment Act, explained

Over 36,000 Afghans in the U.S. have temporary status. What would a path to permanent residency look like?

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Shazia Kakaie pauses at her house in North Salt Lake on Nov. 23, 2021, while describing her experience leaving Afghanistan.

Afghan refugee Shazia Kakaie pauses at her house in North Salt Lake on Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021, while describing her experience leaving Kabul, Afghanistan. Tens of thousands of Afghan refugees are in legal limbo, unable to meet narrow visa parameters or are waiting on a historic backlog of applications.

Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

It’s been over nine months since American forces pulled out of Afghanistan, resulting in the chaotic evacuation of roughly 130,000 people, 76,000 of whom made their way to the U.S.

Now, tens of thousands are in legal limbo, unable to meet narrow visa parameters or are waiting on a historic backlog of applications.

Many have temporary residency that is set to expire in the coming months — while permanent avenues are in place, they can sometimes take years to process, and could be further prolonged by the current backlog.

Though not yet introduced as a standalone bill, advocates are calling on Congress to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act, which would create a pathway to permanent residency for over 36,000 evacuees living in the U.S.

The numbers: Most of the Afghans that came to the U.S. following the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul did so through two avenues — humanitarian parole or a special immigrant visa. Consider this data from the Department of Homeland Security:

  • About 36,000 came via humanitarian parole, a streamlined process to admit people, often ineligible for other visas, on a “temporary period for urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit,” according to DHS.
  • Over 3,200 have special immigrant visas, which are available to people who were employed by or worked alongside U.S. forces.
  • Over 36,800 have applied for a special immigrant visa, a figure which likely includes some humanitarian parolees.

What the Afghan Adjustment Act would do: An act of Congress could allow the roughly 36,000 Afghan parolees to apply for permanent residency if they’ve been in the U.S. for a year.

Humanitarian parole typically lasts between one to two years, but in March DHS officials granted an 18 month temporary protection status for Afghans.

However, there is no guarantee the expiration date will be extended again, which means Afghans risk deportation or losing work authorization, even if they have a pending visa application.

The adjustment would also relieve the backlog on asylum and special immigrant visa applications. Many parolees currently waiting on a visa could apply for permanent residency through this new pathway.

It would also make it easier to process applicants who are still in Afghanistan or fled to nearby countries like Turkey or Pakistan.

Afghans could apply for permanent residency through the U.S. refugee program — however the process can take up to three years and there are no protections against deportation or losing work authorization.

Hung up in Congress: Lawmakers left the Afghan adjustment provision out of a $40 billion Ukrainian aid package passed in May, despite calls to Congress from the Biden administration to include it.

Some lawmakers said the aid to Ukraine, which included things like weapons and equipment from U.S. stockpiles, was too urgent to be bogged down by the provision.

“I do think it’s really important to keep the Ukrainian aid program an aid package about Ukraine, not adding anything to it — even something like the Afghan program that I might support,” Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican, told Roll Call.

“I am clear that we can’t slow down the Ukraine assistance package, and so I agree with the president’s timeline and objective in terms of getting this done no later than next week,” said Delaware Democratic Sen. Chris Coons.

Other GOP lawmakers have expressed concerns over the vetting process.

“Following the Biden administration’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, I expressed concern about the administration’s lackluster efforts to screen evacuees flooding from the terrorist safe haven,” said Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, who pointed to data from the Department of Defense that suggests “thousands of Afghans were not properly screened.”

Immigration advocates note that the adjustment act would require additional screening for Afghans who decide to apply for permanent residency.

And while some parolees were not thoroughly screened at the Kabul airport, DHS says it has conducted thousands of background checks since — that includes biographic and biometric data reviews, medical screenings, and coordination with the Department of Defense, FBI, National Counterterrorism Center, and Interpol.

A standalone bill: Advocates say Congress should move to pass a standalone Afghan Adjustment Act, however they acknowledge it’s a difficult task with the apprehension among Republicans.

As Roll Call notes, there is a shrinking number of “must-pass” bills ahead of midterm elections, and opportunities to incorporate an Afghan Adjustment Act into broader legislation are limited.

Congress has passed similar adjustments for refugees fleeing U.S. involved conflicts. The thousands of humanitarian parolees that came to the U.S. after Fidel Castro’s rise to power in Cuba, the American withdrawal from Vietnam and the invasion of Iraq were all able to apply for permanent status.