As the Taliban took over Afghanistan following the withdrawal of U.S. troops, millions of Afghans faced persecution and retaliatory attacks for supporting the U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan. Those who were able to escape now face the challenges of resettling in a new country. About 75,000 Afghans were evacuated from Kabul to military bases across the United States since last fall. To date, Washington state has welcomed more than 2,000 people, including many who risked their (and their families’) lives to support U.S. troops.
“The fast-paced influx of arrivals in our region is unprecedented, and is testing our resettlement systems in significant ways,” said Aneelah Afzali, executive director of the American Muslim Empowerment Network at the Muslim Association of Puget Sound (MAPS-AMEN).
Afzali, who is of Afghan descent and still has family members trapped in Afghanistan, said that the harrowing process of fleeing persecution and violence is magnified by bureaucratic obstacles and lengthy immigration processes, which are increasingly delayed due to COVID-19.
The experiences of Afghans are even more complicated if they are still awaiting resettlement. More than 19,500 refugees are still on military bases waiting for state assignment and resettlement resources, and there are roughly 3,000 individuals who are at overseas transit locations — known as “lily pads” or “third countries” — for processing to come to the United States. Since the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan closed with the U.S. withdrawal, there are few options for the tens of thousands still at risk within Afghanistan’s borders to evacuate and/or apply for asylum.
“The U.S. Department of State has stated there is nothing they can do at this moment to identify, liaise with or transport someone out of Afghanistan as the U.S. government evacuation process has formally ended,” said Alejandra Villa, a social worker in immigration services.
“Many Afghans are here because they risked their, and their family’s, lives to work with and support the American government, and are now facing retaliation by the Taliban. They were allies to U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and were promised support and protection, and we are breaking that promise to the many Afghans left behind,” Afzali said.
Many U.S. veterans who worked closely with translators and government workers in Afghanistan are now stepping up to make good on promises to support and protect them. However, they are facing roadblocks from the U.S. government during attempts to evacuate more Afghans, even though Afghan allies are facing grave danger due to their cooperation with U.S. troops.
“Our failure to protect Afghans who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with American troops not only impacts Afghans but also U.S. veterans, whose lives were dependent on such allies. It impacts our credibility on a world stage when we promise to protect those who help us but then break that promise. Leaving so many behind to face persecution and retaliatory attacks from the Taliban is cruel and inhumane,” Afzali said.
Due to the imminent danger and the abrupt U.S. departure from Afghanistan, Afghan nationals were evacuated to the U.S. under humanitarian parole status, which initially did not grant them the same resettlement support as refugees who enter under other immigration statuses, such as the Special Immigrant Visa.
“We had essentially created a two-class system for Afghans depending on their immigration status,” Afzali said.
Thanks to advocacy from the Afghan diaspora, veterans groups and more, a bill was passed by Congress to extend the same resettlement benefits to those under humanitarian parole. However, implementation has been rocky, causing delays in access to vital benefits such as food benefits and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a program that gives cash assistance to low-income families.
While refugees with humanitarian parole status are eligible to apply for work authorization, the process is riddled with administrative barriers. Entering the country with this status grants governmental support for up to 90 days. After that, families are forced to navigate accessing support from community-based organizations while they await work visas. Current processing times for work visas range anywhere between eight months to one year.
“Humanitarian parole only grants evacuees temporary legal status in our country for up to two years. During that time, among the numerous other obstacles Afghan evacuees face, they have to apply for adjustment of status to legally remain in the U.S. Otherwise, they would no longer have legal permission to remain in the U.S., although it is unclear if or where they would be deported to,” Afzali said.
Within two years of arriving, Afghans arriving under humanitarian parole status have to apply for an adjustment of immigration status and then can apply for a green card. Five years after obtaining a green card, refugees can then apply for U.S. citizenship.
MAPS-AMEN has directly partnered with the state through the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) to oversee the coordination of resettling Afghan arrivals in Washington. Through this effort, DSHS and MAPS-AMEN coordinate with resettlement agencies, community-based organizations and the general public to support incoming refugees with housing, healthcare, employment, education, basic needs and legal services. They are collaborating with Airbnb, local governments and other aid organizations to piecemeal temporary housing options for refugees. Local community members have also stepped up to be host families.
A way forward
Gov. Jay Inslee included a budget proposal for $2.2 million to support legal services for Afghan arrivals, but advocates speculate this is insufficient to cover the costly and complicated legal hoops of United States Citizen and Immigration Services. For context, Oregon recently passed a bill allocating $18 million to support Afghan refugee resettlement and has welcomed a small fraction of Afghan refugees compared to Washington state.
“We could avoid the time-consuming and unnecessary legal and other costs associated with requiring evacuees to apply for adjustment of status by passing the Afghan Adjustment Act, a Congressional bill to automatically adjust the status for Afghan Humanitarian Parolees,” Afzali said.
Advocates are hopeful that a more humane way is possible, but are discouraged that the Afghan Adjustment Act may not pass due to partisan politics.
Incoming refugees may face xenophobia and Islamophobia, as well. On the Michigan State campus, stickers stating “Afghan Refugee Hunting Permit” were posted by the far-right group the Proud Boys. In Washington, a storage site for donated goods for Afghans was vandalized. Some Afghan children were turned away from enrolling in school due to lack of birth certificates, even though their right to education is protected under federal law.
To counter the potential rise of xenophobia that refugees may experience, MAPS-AMEN has created “We Welcome Our Afghan Neighbors” signs and is urging businesses, congregations and the general public to post them in their offices, homes and businesses.
There is also an emergency fund currently accepting donations that will support families who may not be getting assistance from resettlement agencies or those who need help after some of their benefits end. MAPS-AMEN and other local organizations are also accepting certain specific donated items, volunteers to deliver items to families and host families to support resettlement. An extensive list of ways to support Afghan refugees can be found on the DSHS welcome page or through the All In Washington campaign.
“As an Afghan-American with family still trying to evacuate Kabul, the past few months have been traumatic and heartbreaking. But what has given me hope and strength is the strong bipartisan support for welcoming Afghans,” Afzali said. “We may not be able to help all vulnerable Afghans, [but] at the very least I hope we can help the fortunate few who make it here in rebuilding their lives while we continue to work to fulfill our country’s promise to Afghanistan.”
Kayla Blau is a youth advocate who has also written for the South Seattle Emerald, Crosscut, The Stranger, and the Seattle Globalist. More of her work can be found at https://kaylablau.contently.com.
Read more of the Feb. 2-8, 2022 issue.