WASHINGTON – Congress has failed so far to create a path to residency for Afghans who worked alongside U.S. soldiers in America's longest war, pushing into limbo tens of thousands of refugees who fled Taliban control more than two years ago and now live in the United States.
Some lawmakers had hoped to resolve the Afghans' immigration status as part of a year-end government funding package. But that effort failed, punting the issue into the new year, when Republicans will take power in the House. The result is grave uncertainty for refugees now facing an August deadline for action from Congress before their temporary parole status expires.
Nearly 76,000 Afghans who worked with American soldiers since 2001 as translators, interpreters and partners arrived in the U.S. on military planes after the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021. The government admitted the refugees on a temporary parole status as part of Operation Allies Welcome, the largest resettlement effort in the country in decades, with the promise of a path to a life in the U.S. for their service.
Mohammad Behzad Hakkak, 30, is among those Afghans waiting for resolution, unable to work or settle down in his new community in Fairfax, Virginia, under his parole status. Hakkak worked as a partner to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan as a human rights defender in the now-defunct Afghan government.
“We lost everything in Afghanistan” after the Taliban returned to power, he said. “And now, we don’t know about our future here.”
For the past year, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, backed by veterans organizations and former military officials, has pushed Congress to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act, which would prevent the Afghans from becoming stranded without legal residency status when their two years of humanitarian parole expire in August 2023. It would enable qualified Afghans to apply for U.S. citizenship, as was done for refugees in the past, including those from Cuba, Vietnam and Iraq.
Supporters of the proposal thought it might clear Congress after the November election because it enjoys overwhelming bipartisan support. But they said their efforts were thwarted by one man: Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which oversees immigration issues.
“We've never seen support for a piece of legislation like this and it not pass,” said Shawn Van Diver, a Navy veteran and head of #AfghanEvac, a coalition supporting Afghan resettlement efforts. “It’s really frustrating to me that one guy from Iowa can block this."
Grassley has argued for months that the bill as written goes too far by including evacuees beyond those “who were our partners over the last 20 years," providing a road to residency without the proper screening required.
“First of all, people that help our country should absolutely have the promise that we made to them," Grassley told The Associated Press. "There’s some disagreement on the vetting process. That’s been a problem and that hasn’t been worked out yet.”
Proponents of the legislation reject those concerns. More than 30 retired military officers, including three former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote Congress saying the bill not only “furthers the national security interests of the United States,” but is also ”a moral imperative." The White House also has called for passage.
Biden's press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre said, in mid-December that it is "important to take care of Afghan allies who took care of us.”
The proposal, if passed, would provide a streamlined, prioritized adjustment process for Afghan nationals who supported the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. The Homeland Security Department would adjust the status of eligible evacuees to provide them with lawful permanent resident status after they have had rigorous vetting and screening procedures. It also would improve and expand ways to protection for those left behind and at risk in Afghanistan.
“The Afghan refugees are a very high priority and had some good Republican support, but unfortunately, the Republican leadership blocked it,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., recently told reporters. “These are people who risked their lives for our soldiers and for our country, and we should be rewarding them as we have done in the past.”
Several congressional aides explained the holdup on the bill by pointing to a seven-page, single-spaced letter, obtained by The Associated Press, that Grassley's office circulated to all 50 Republican senators in August. The memo outlined his issues with the proposal, resulting in months of back-and-forth negotiation as the sponsors of the bill tried to address them.
U.S. national security and military officials have outlined the stringent screening process that evacuees went through before arriving on American soil. Those security screenings, conducted in Europe and the Middle East, included background checks with both biographic information and biometric screenings using voiceprints, iris scans, palm prints and facial photos.
But Republicans say the vetting system is not fail-safe. They pointed to a September report from Homeland Security's inspector general that said at least two people from Afghanistan who were paroled into the country “posed a risk to national security and the safety of local communities.”
As a result, mandatory in-person interviews for all Afghan applicants were written into the bill as well as requirements that relevant agencies brief Congress on proposed vetting procedures before putting them in place.
Despite strengthening the vetting process over months of negotiations, the bill never made it out of the Judiciary Committee and failed to win inclusion in the just-passed $1.7 trillion government funding bill.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., was one of the lead sponsors of the bill. “If this is what we do when they come to our country, and we don’t have their backs,'" she said, "what message are we sending to the rest of the world who stand with our soldiers, who protect them, who provide security for their families?”
But Klobuchar and the lead Republican co-sponsor, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, pledged to bring the bill back up again in the new session of Congress starting in January.
“This is the right thing to do," Graham, an Air Force veteran, told the Senate recently. “There’s no other ending that would be acceptable to me.”
He added: “The people who were there with us in the fight, that are here in America, need to stay. This will be their new home.”
Most people in the United States appear to share that sentiment.
A survey from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research taken the month after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan found that 72% of respondents regarded giving the Afghans refuge from any Taliban retaliation as a duty and a necessary coda of the nearly 20-year war.