One year after the fall of Afghanistan and the departure of US forces, tens of thousands of Afghans who worked for American interests in the country find themselves in limbo as they wait for their visas to be processed.
A State Department official told The National that the US has welcomed about 80,000 Afghans to the country, making it the largest refugee influx since the Vietnam War.
But many of those refugees' visa applications have not yet been finalised.
Afghan refugees who worked directly for the US government or its contractors are typically processed through the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) programme and the US Refugee Admissions Programme (Usrap).
Both of these, however, are suffering from a severe backlog of cases due to the Covid-19 pandemic and measures taken by former president Donald Trump's administration that cut staffing and funding for US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the agency responsible for foreigners looking to immigrate to the country.
The US official said that out of the nearly 80,000 Afghans that have applied for an SIV, only 10,096 have been approved.
The rest have been granted entry to the US through humanitarian parole. This temporary status allows foreigners to come to the country but they are subject to work and travel restrictions.
Even after arriving in the US, Afghan refugees on humanitarian parole face an uphill battle, with the International Rescue Committee reporting housing and healthcare challenges among those who have relocated. Some face the looming threat of deportation.
“Because their humanitarian parole only lasts for two years, Afghans would soon lose access to employment, health care and their legal right to reside in the US,” the organisation said.
“Many would even be vulnerable to deportation back to a country they fled in fear — all through no fault of their own.”
And the queue for the humanitarian parole programme is long: thousands of Afghan evacuees are languishing outside the US in camps in Kosovo, Madagascar and Qatar as they wait for their applications to be approved.
Many of those applications may end up being rejected.
TIME magazine reported that, since July 2021, USCIS has received more than 40,000 humanitarian parole applications and, as of January, it has only “conditionally approved” about 145 — rejecting 560.
The staggering deficit is alarming refugee and human rights organisations, which are calling on US President Joe Biden's administration to do more to avert a humanitarian crisis.
Human Rights First, a New York-based organisation advocating refugee rights, has called for a new approach from the US government that would grant Afghan refugees permanent status.
“Our Afghan friends, neighbours and allies deserve more than temporary protections. Congress must pass and @POTUS sign an Afghan Adjustment Act,” the organisation wrote on Twitter.
The International Rescue Committee has also urged Congress to “take up and pass the Afghan Adjustment Act to provide a pathway to lawful permanent residency for Afghan evacuees”.
The Adjustment Act is not a standalone bill but a measure used by Congress since the 1970s that has granted Vietnamese, Cuban and Iraqi refugees the opportunity to adjust their status from temporary to permanent in two years.
The adjustment in status for these groups was an acknowledgement of the sacrifices made in US war efforts or, in the case of Cuba, persecution by the Castro regime.
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There is no indication, however, that the administration or Congress are willing to move in that direction, as the State Department continues to struggle through vetting and processing temporary status applications.
US officials appeared to throw a bone to Afghan refugees when they announced in July a change to the SIV process so that applicants need only file one form instead of the 19-page application.
“Starting July 20, all new Afghan SIV applicants — and the majority of applicants already in contact with us — will no longer be required to submit a separate Form I-360 petition for special immigrant status to USCIS,” one official said.
“The elimination of this 19-page form will greatly ease the administrative burden on applicants and reduce processing time.”
But the official admitted that this change — which would involve the State Department and not other federal agencies processing applications — might only expedite the process by a month.
“We do anticipate that, at a minimum, this change in process will shave about a month off of the adjudication time, but even more importantly, I think, ease a great administrative burden on the visa applicant,” the official said.