Afghan evacuees to U.S. face tenuous path ahead
WASHINGTON - The Biden administration is preparing to screen and resettle tens of thousands of Afghan evacuees in the United States over the coming weeks and months, but the majority will arrive without visas as "humanitarian parolees," lacking a path to legal U.S. residency and the benefits and services offered to traditional refugees, according to U.S. officials and worried aid groups working closely with the government.
Afghan parolees who have arrived at U.S. military bases will be eligible for an ad hoc State Department program that provides limited assistance for up to 90 days, including a one-time $1,250 stipend. But they will not have the full range of medical, counseling and resettlement services available to immigrants who arrive through the U.S. refugee program.
The nonprofit organizations that work with the government to resettle refugees and that are assisting with Afghan evacuees say Congress will need to provide billions in emergency funding to help the Afghans start over and ensure they can be successfully and safely integrated into the United States.
"We've been heartened by the administration's efforts to ensure some minimal support, but 90 days is meager compared to the massive need," said Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, president and chief executive of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. "These Afghans feared for their lives and faced floggings on the way to the airport, and the last thing we want them to face here is a tangled web of backlogs and bureaucratic hurdles."
More than 31,000 evacuees from Afghanistan arrived to the United States between Aug. 17 and 31, according to the latest Department of Homeland Security data. That included about 7,000 U.S. citizens and legal residents, as well as nearly 24,000 labeled "Afghans at Risk."
While some of those evacuees include Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) holders or applicants who worked for the U.S. government, officials acknowledge that there is a larger number of parolees who will enter as "vulnerable Afghans."
Some may have few or no U.S. ties but successfully boarded U.S. military flights in the chaotic hours and days after the fall of Kabul, hoping to reach the United States.
Pentagon officials said Wednesday that the U.S.-led airlift evacuated nearly 125,000 Afghans overall, but the Biden administration has not said how many it expects to resettle in the United States.
Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Wednesday that approximately 43,000 Afghan evacuees are waiting at transit sites in Europe and the Middle East. Some evacuees have gone to third countries such as Albania.
U.S. officials say their ability to more carefully select who was able to pass Taliban checkpoints and board evacuation flights improved through "pragmatic" communication with Taliban authorities.
"We got better at prioritizing and focusing on those populations that matter most of all to us," said a senior State Department official involved in the evacuation effort who briefed reporters under rules of anonymity set by the department.
"In the best of all possible worlds, you have the time and space to very thoroughly vet people," the official said. "But as we clearly saw, the length of time required for some of that vetting hampered our ability to move some of those populations as early in the process as we could have."
When organizations that were involved in human rights advocacy provided the United States with lists of people seeking to evacuate, officials didn't have time to determine whether they were qualified, the official said. "We essentially took the nature of the organization and their affirmation that these people were who they were and just assumed it was an at-risk organization."
The Biden administration has directed DHS to coordinate Afghan resettlement, and on Monday, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas named Robert Fenton Jr., a veteran Federal Emergency Management Agency official, to lead the effort.
DHS officials say about 300 staffers from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. Coast Guard have been deployed to the transit sites - referred to as "lily pads" - that are designated as the primary screening locations.
"The federal government has established a robust and multi-layered screening and vetting process with dual goals of protecting the homeland and providing protections for vulnerable Afghans," DHS spokesperson Sarah Peck said in a statement.
Afghan evacuees are required to provide biometric and biographic information, but many of the evacuees lack passports and other documents that typically facilitate the process, officials acknowledge.
The Biden administration has not said what it will do with evacuees who have derogatory information that raise security concerns during the vetting process, but officials say they will work with allies and partners to resettle at-risk Afghans in third countries.
Homeland security officials say only Afghans who can be safely vetted will be allowed to travel to the United States.
Tom Warrick, a former DHS and State Department official who worked on the Special Immigrant Visa program for Iraqis, said U.S. screeners can still conduct robust vetting on Afghans who lack documentation or a record of working for Western governments and organizations.
"There are still substantial numbers of ways to validate information given during interviews," said Warrick. "This is what [U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services] does when adjudicating people from countries without a substantial U.S. military presence - to check facts in their stories, and cross-check what is known historically if someone claims they were in fear of persecution as a member of a particular religious or ethnic minority."
Another 80 staffers from USCIS are helping to process evacuees at Dulles International Airport in Virginia and Philadelphia International Airport, the two designated arrival points for the commercial and charter aircraft bringing Afghans to the United States. CBP personnel at those locations conduct a secondary "cross-check" on arriving Afghans to verify their information, DHS officials said.
From there, the evacuees are transferred to military sites, where they undergo medical screening, including coronavirus tests, and are offered vaccines. After processing, the evacuees are issued temporary work authorization and referred to refugee resettlement organizations.
Afghans who don't speak English or have ties to the U.S. government or U.S. organizations are particularly vulnerable, say refugee organizations who are attempting to raise private funding to help with housing, medical bills and other support services.
Mark Hetfield, president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), a group that resettles refugees, said his organization is preparing for the potential arrival of 50,000 Afghans who will enter as parolees, with a provisional residency status that expires after two years.
Hetfield said Congress needs to prepare a large appropriation to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), the State Department and USCIS. "The number we've been floating around, just on the back of the napkin, is $5 billion for ORR, $2 billion for State, and $1 billion for USCIS, at a minimum," he said. "That would give parolees the same amount of assistance as refugees or SIVs would get."
Hetfield said the short-term funding from the State Department won't cover many expenses, let alone provide families with essential tools like Internet access and mobile connectivity. "They need things like smartphones," he said. "Those are not luxuries, they are necessities. You can't access the job market without access to the Internet."
One administration official, who was not authorized to speak to reporters, said the Biden administration is looking at ways to boost funding and support for Afghan resettlement.
Another looming issue is their legal status as parolees. Congress could create a mechanism to allow them to "adjust" to legal permanent residency, aid groups say, along the lines of the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 or more recent programs to aid Iraqis.
The parolees could apply for asylum, stating a fear of persecution if returned to Afghanistan, but the U.S. asylum system is badly overloaded by applicants from the Mexico border.
The capacity of the U.S. refugee system is also depleted, aid groups say, following deep cuts to the program under the Trump administration.
"The refugee resettlement system has been decimated, so our local offices are unable to accept parolees right now without an assurance of our ability to cover costs like medical expenses immediately," said Vignarajah.
"We are fundraising, but it's a piecemeal, time-intensive process to secure private contributions," she said. "And we don't want to end up with our case managers doing check-ins with families under overpasses."