In 2021, the United States began one of its largest humanitarian evacuations in history as it withdrew from Afghanistan, resettling more than 80,000 (PDF) Afghans fleeing Taliban rule in the initial weeks of Operation Allies Welcome. Upon arrival in the US, more than 70,000 evacuees (PDF) were granted humanitarian parole for two years, a temporary immigration status with no path to permanent residency.
Now, that two-year period is nearing its end. Afghans who were paroled have been encouraged to apply for either asylum, Temporary Protected Status (TPS), Special Immigrant Visa (SIV), and most recently, a two-year extension of parole, to secure their legal status in the US. But through our work interviewing resettlement providers and community stakeholders in Chicago, San Antonio, and northern Virginia since this spring, we’ve found this process has come with many challenges.
The refugee resettlement infrastructure, which had resettled fewer than 12,000 refugees in the year before evacuees’ arrival, was tasked with resettling six times that number in a matter of weeks, and the capacity of legal assistance resources and immigration processing is backlogged by years. Uncertainty around parole status has had several concrete effects on other parts of evacuees’ lives, including employment, housing, and mental health.
Here, we share some insights drawn from the 55 community stakeholder interviews on the consequences of parole status on Afghan evacuees’ lives. They expressed that the tenuous nature of evacuees’ immigration status has posed a critical structural barrier to their well-being and ultimately success in the US.
Employment and licenses tied to parole expiration
Like other resettled refugees, Afghan adults were encouraged to find jobs quickly and felt pressure to do so given high costs of living, limited assistance available, and, for some, the large families they’re supporting. Many found low-wage jobs in manufacturing, hospitality, retail, food processing, trucking, or ride sharing to support themselves and their families. But with the pending expiration of Employment Authorization Documents this fall, employment stability is at risk for some. Stakeholders shared that because of the expiration date, some employers have begun notifying people they will lose their jobs or laying them off outright.
In Texas, driver’s licenses were issued to evacuees with an expiration date at the end of their two-year parole period, leading to questions from employers and landlords about whether employees and tenants will remain after these licenses expire.
Uncertainty of status causes stress on adults and children
Nearly all stakeholders we spoke with highlighted the mental health challenges experienced by Afghan evacuees. They lived in a conflict zone and under military occupation for years and experienced a traumatic and hasty departure from their home country, leaving family members behind. They are now expected to settle in and make their way in a new country where many do not speak English and are unfamiliar with how services, health care, schools, and other institutions work. Many have family members still in Afghanistan who are in danger, and they feel intense concern and pressure to get them out.
Stakeholders expressed frustration that as of spring 2023, there was still no announcement from the government about what would happen to parolees when their status would run out this fall. The lack of permanent status is causing enormous stress and uncertainty in Afghans’ lives and is compounded by not knowing when they’ll be reunited with family members. One stakeholder in the education system noted that Afghan school children have internalized this uncertainty, expressing concerns such as “I do not belong here, I do not belong there.”
Lack of information, understanding, and support for legal assistance
Many parolees arrived with no understanding of their immigration status, and many lack specific documentation because of the circumstances of their departure. Navigating the complicated process to apply for asylum, TPS, SIV, or seek reunification with family members has posed a significant challenge, especially with limited pro bono legal assistance capacity.
For those who manage to submit applications, the immigration system is backlogged and slow to respond. A stakeholder shared that there’s only one US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) office to serve three large Texas cities where more than 10,000 evacuees were resettled. Many Afghans were unaware of the need to file for a new immigration status and were not equipped to do so, and those who did experienced extremely long wait times. Stakeholders shared that because of the large number of asylum seekers, applicants are receiving court dates for one year out. Many stakeholders expressed frustration that more support wasn’t provided to assist evacuees with these urgent legal assistance needs (PDF) and that they’re only left with the hope for permanent status through the Afghan Adjustment Act.
Adjustment as a policy solution
In June, USCIS established a reparole process to allow certain Afghans to apply for two additional years of temporary status. Although a welcome reprieve, it raises questions about the feasibility of USCIS processing so many people before the parole expiration date and creates yet another legal hurdle to overcome or risk being out of status.
As of June, the Department of Homeland Security reported (PDF) that 17,588 asylum applications from parolees had been filed (for 34,254 applicants), but they haven’t published current numbers on how many applications have been fully processed and approved. In February, it was reported that only 4,775 Afghan asylum or SIV status applications had been approved.
Many stakeholders shared the urgent need for a permanent solution to adjust evacuees’ status, as has been done previously for other paroled populations entering for urgent humanitarian reasons. The bipartisan Afghan Adjustment Act, reintroduced on July 14, 2023, could provide Afghan evacuees the security they need. In the absence of permanent residency, the continued uncertainty of their immigration status will put individuals, families, and communities under greater stress and threaten their ability to gain a real foothold in the US. Our forthcoming report will include further insights and recommendations through perspectives from Afghan evacuees.