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The Challenging Road Ahead for Afghans Evacuees to Resettle in the United States

The United States officially withdrew from Afghanistan on August 30 after evacuating more than 120,000 people from the country, in one of the largest airlifts in history. Despite the massive number of people evacuated, estimates suggest that approximately 250,000 Afghans remain in Afghanistan who may still be eligible for expedited U.S. visas.1 As of September 14, 64,000 Afghan evacuees had arrived in the United States; it is unclear how many are Special Immigrant Visa holders (SIVs), how many are U.S. citizens, and how many are “vulnerable Afghans,” which is a mix of SIV holders, other visa holders, visa applicants who have not yet completed processing, or other potentially vulnerable categories. SIVs are Afghans who worked for the U.S. government or U.S. government contractors for at least a year; family members (spouse and unmarried children younger than 21) can also be granted an SIV. As of September 24, 53,500 Afghan evacuees are being held at the eight military sites designated to temporarily host Afghans, with the largest number at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin. States have begun to learn how many Afghan evacuees (of the first approximately 37,000-40,000 who arrived in the U.S.) are expected to be resettled in their state, as the Department of Homeland Security continues to move evacuees through the operational phases of Operation Allies Welcome. The United States faces an incredibly complex challenge in welcoming this large influx of Afghan evacuees that has bypassed much of the traditional refugee resettlement process.

Although the Afghans who were evacuated and brought to the United States have been generally referred to as “refugees” in the media, most of them do not have refugee status. Traditionally, refugees and SIV visa holders go through a long resettlement process involving multiple interviews and screenings overseas, including undertaking a 14-step process to obtain an SIV, which can take up to three years. Once they are approved for resettlement, different government and non-profit agencies step in to arrange transport to the United States and help integrate them into their new communities. However, the majority of Afghans arriving in the United States are being ushered in as “humanitarian parolees,” not traditional refugees, and most have not yet completed the process to obtain an SIV.

Humanitarian parole is used to admit to the United States someone who is otherwise inadmissible (for example because they don’t have the proper visa) when there is a humanitarian interest to doing so. Parole is granted for a temporary period of time, usually one year, though U.S. immigration officials may add another 12 months in case of emergency. On August 26, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services published information about how Afghans outside the United States could request parole. USCIS specified that though parole allows the person to lawfully reside in the United States during the parole period, the person still technically remains an applicant for admission. Parole does not grant formal immigration status and does not lay out a path to permanent residency, nor does it give the parolee the ability to acquire lawful immigration status directly. Parolees would have to apply for another lawful status during their parole period, and can apply for asylum, stating that they have a well-founded fear of persecution if they were to return to Afghanistan. Applying for humanitarian parole is not free and may present a barrier for many applicants who left Afghanistan with only the possessions they could carry. Currently, USCIS charges $575 per humanitarian parole application, although a fee waiver may be available. It is also unclear what might happen if a parolee applies for asylum and is denied.

As highlighted in BPC’s event on September 9, “What’s Next for Afghan Refugees?,” humanitarian parolees do not qualify for the same resettlement benefits that are offered to refugees and SIV visa holders. As of now, they are left out of benefits offered by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) and face a set of restrictions on access to other public assistance because of their lack of refugee status. The White House has requested authorization in the upcoming continuing resolution bill to allow the Afghan parolees to qualify for these benefits, and a bipartisan bill, the WELCOMED Act, has been separately introduced to do the same.

Usually, refugees are eligible for programs administered through ORR, which offer cash assistance, medical assistance, and employment-related services, in addition to case management services and English language classes. In terms of cash assistance, refugees arriving to the United States typically receive $900 upon arrival. This one-time-only initial resettlement money is restriction free, though resettlement case managers usually advise the refugee on how to spend the money. After that, refugees receive cash assistance, either through the Refugee Cash Assistance (RCA) program or the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. RCA assistance is limited to eight months, while TANF assistance can be accessed for up to five years. These programs, and the cash assistance that refugees receive, are designed to streamline their transition into American society and help them reach self-sufficiency. SIVs, and Special Immigrant (SQ/SI parolees, i.e. Afghans who were in the process of applying for SIV status) will both be eligible for the full suite of services that is normally offered to refugees through ORR.

While Afghans granted humanitarian parole are not eligible for any of these benefits, they can access to an ad hoc State Department program, the Afghan Placement Assistance Program, also referred to as the Afghan Parolee Support Program, which will provide initial relocation support and limited assistance to parolees for 90 days. According to a fact sheet on the program from one of the refugee resettlement groups, Lutheran Immigrant and Refugee Services, participating organizations will receive $2,275 per parolee; $1,225 is allocated for direct assistance, and $1,050 for agency administrative costs. The fact sheet goes on to say that initial relocation support services available through the program will be “broadly similar to the core services” that refugees are provided, including airport reception, housing, food supplies, pocket money, material needs support, assistance with enrolling in health services, school, and legal services, cultural orientation, asylum application, and immunizations and vaccinations. The program is being administered by the State Department and Health and Human Services Department, and also provides short-term emergency health insurance to program beneficiaries.

Housing is one of the most critical needs for the evacuees, and an existing housing shortage has presented a challenge for the U.S. government. Some Afghans are being resettled into existing Afghan communities such as those in Southern California, where housing and living costs are already very high. This adds to the difficulty of resettling parolees with little funding. The shortage of housing options has prompted resettlement agencies to work with hotel chains to obtain short-term lodging for the evacuees while they search for more long-term options. Though many resettlement organizations are seeing high levels of private support, they say it will not be enough to make up the difference.

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Conclusion

The Refugee Act of 1980 created a permanent and systematic process for the admission of refugees of special humanitarian concern to the United States, and made provisions for the resettlement and absorption of those refugees into the United States that were uniform and effective. The process was initiated partly in reaction to the ad hoc way that Vietnamese and other Southeast Asian refugees were settled after the Vietnam War. The Afghan evacuation and the arrival of the evacuees has some similarities to that event, especially the fact that the government has had to develop ad hoc processes for the parolees. However, there is strong, bipartisan support in the country for making these efforts on behalf of America’s Afghan allies, and this outpouring of support is necessary to meet the challenges of resettling the evacuees.

End Notes:

1 According to the Department of State official estimates, a “majority” of Afghan SIV applicants, including Embassy contractors, were left behind in Afghanistan.

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