Washington - Bipartisan legislation that would allow eligible Afghans to apply for lawful permanent residence in the United States was introduced in both chambers of Congress, days before the first anniversary of the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The Afghan Adjustment Act, introduced Tuesday, would establish a path to U.S. citizenship for Afghans whose immigration status will be uncertain when their temporary humanitarian parole expires.
"Today we can see that Congress has listened and this bill is written proof of that obligation and action. The introduction of this bill is a victory for every veteran and front-line civilian who had been affected by the Afghan withdrawal," said Chris Purdy, director of Veterans for American Ideals and Outreach at U.S.-based Human Rights First. He made his comments during a press conference where other military veterans, refugee advocates, and Afghan evacuees spoke to reporters on Wednesday.
More than 76,000 Afghans were admitted to the U.S. on temporary immigration status following the military withdrawal from Afghanistan.
If passed, the proposal would expand eligibility for Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) to include more Afghans. Women, who served in special counterterrorism teams, and others who worked with U.S. forces as commandos and air force personnel, could be eligible for the SIV program.
The SIV is a decade-old immigrant visa program that helps military interpreters and others who worked for the U.S. government to move to the United States in a direct pathway to a permanent resident card, also known as green card.
The newly introduced legislation would require applicants to submit to additional background checks.
Susannah Cunningham, advocacy manager at Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, said that a year after Afghans lost so much, this legislation represents a future in which America is their safe harbor and their home.
"And veterans show us yet again that they will not have their story written for them, or a promise they made to an ally or a loved one broken. The introduction of this Democrat- and Republican-sponsored bill brings the U.S. a step closer to keeping their own promises to allies and to veterans alike," Cunningham said during the press conference.
Those who meet the proposed legislation requirements must show they were admitted to the United States prior to the act's possible enactment date and have been paroled into the United States between July 30, 2021 and the enactment date. Also, their travel to the U.S. needs to have been facilitated by the government. If arriving in the U.S. after the bill goes into effect, applicants need to prove they supported the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.
The tens of thousands of Afghan evacuees who made it to the United States entered an extraordinary system with very different benefits.
After the evacuation, the government embraced those with Special Immigrant Visa status and granted assistance with housing, food, and clothing to lining up employment and qualifying for health care.
They are mostly the Afghans and their families who worked as interpreters or guides for the U.S. military or were employed by the U.S. government or on its behalf in Afghanistan during the 20-year war. The SIV program leads to permanent residence and a path to naturalization.
As of July 18, Biden administration officials said there were 74,274 principal applicants in the SIV pipeline, a number that does not include spouses and children. Of those principal applicants, 10,096 have received chief of mission approval, a crucial step in the SIV application process. Including the family members of those who received that approval, a senior government official said they estimate 45,000 to 50,000 SIV recipients.
Those who arrived without a visa or any proper documentation had to file for humanitarian parole, which is usually granted because of an emergency or urgent humanitarian reason. The time limit for parole status is one year. U.S. immigration officials, however, can extend it by another 12 months.
Afghans under the humanitarian parole designation are temporarily protected from deportation and allowed to apply for authorization to work. Parole does not confer immigration status, or public benefits or constitute a path to U.S. citizenship.
Generally, those Afghans who can't gain permanent residence can apply for asylum, but immigration courts have a backlog of 1.6 million cases of asylum and other immigration applications. The wait time for a hearing on an immigrant's asylum claim is about five years.
Other temporary status
Six months after the withdrawal, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) designated Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Afghanistan, which provides 18 months of protection from deportation for Afghans who have been living in the U.S. since March 15, 2022, and meet other requirements.
TPS does not lead to lawful permanent residence or a pathway to U.S. citizenship.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and two Republican colleagues joined three Democrats in introducing the proposal in the Senate, which could increase the bill's chance of congressional approval.
On the House side, Representatives Zoe Lofgren and Earl Blumenauer, both Democrats, joined with Republicans Peter Meijer and Adam Kinzinger and another five lawmakers as sponsors of the bill.
According to a report from the Reuters news agency, the measure likely will face 'resistance' from anti-immigration Republicans per a congressional aide speaking on condition of anonymity.
Yet, Purdy, of Human Rights First, said the bill "lights the torch of welcome" and gives hope to those still waiting to be evacuated from Afghanistan.
"I want to say that we have not forgotten you. We will not forget you. And we will spend every day to make sure that this bill becomes law and America gives you the promised welcome that you deserve," he said.