What is the legal status of Afghan refugees coming to the US?

ByPriscilla Alvarez, CNN, CNNWire
Friday, September 3, 2021
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The protest was organized by Chicago for Afghans specifically called for changes to what they said is a slow visa process for Afghan people facing a dire situation.

More than 122,000 people have been evacuated from Afghanistan, all with varying legal statuses and needs as many of them arrive in the United States.

Some are US citizens, others Afghan interpreters who worked alongside US troops and were granted a special visa as a result, and others still are refugees fleeing for their lives.

The focus is shifting on to those landing in the US and what assistance will be provided to those who left with little to no belongings after a frenzied evacuation effort.

Here's what to know about the Afghans arriving to the US and the benefits available to them:

What is the legal status of Afghans coming to the US?

It's a mixed bag. Some are US citizens and green card holders. But others have been granted visas or other forms of humanitarian relief. Most notably is the special immigrant visa, or SIV, which is meant to provide a pathway to the United States for Afghans who were employed by or worked on behalf of the US government.

There is a lengthy multi-step process for SIV applicants to apply for visas to the US. The process -- which also includes extensive vetting -- can take months, if not years due to a massive backlog.

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In early August, the Biden administration announced it would also expand access to the refugee program for Afghans who do not qualify for SIVs. These Afghans, including those who worked for US-based media companies or non-governmental organizations, are now eligible for "Priority 2" or "P2" designation, which applies to "groups of special concern designated by the Department of State as having access to the program by virtue of their circumstances and apparent need for resettlement." There was also an existing "Priority 1" designation under the US Refugee Admissions Program.

And then there are those without visas. In a move to accommodate them, US Customs and Border Protection, the agency responsible for screening arriving Afghans, has the authority to grant parole on a case-by-case basis.

The US has previously used parole during evacuations, including during the US military withdrawal from Vietnam.

Afghans paroled into the US could be interpreters who worked alongside US troops and are still going through the special immigrant visa process, or people who could've been eligible to come in through the traditional refugee resettlement program, if not for the emergency nature of the evacuation and lengthy time it takes to get approvals, refugee advocates say.

Where are those Afghans going?

The US is relying on third countries, like Kuwait and Qatar, as a temporary stop before Afghans fly to the US and using a series of military bases in the US to house evacuees while they are processed.

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The Pentagon has said those bases will include Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia; Fort Pickett, Virginia; Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico; Fort Lee, Virginia; Fort Bliss, Texas; Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey; and Fort McCoy, Wisconsin.

US military installations housing Afghan refugees are providing culturally appropriate halal meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and most locations have or will have culturally appropriate 24-hour "grab and go" food available as well, according to US NORTHCOM commander Gen. Glen VanHerck.

What benefits can Afghans receive in the US?

It depends. Refugees and special immigrant visa holders have access to a range of short and long-term services to get up on their feet, from help with housing and employment to cash and medical assistance.

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But parole, while providing some reprieve, doesn't unlock services that refugees receive, raising concern among refugee advocates who argue the lack of resources could leave thousands of Afghans in the US vulnerable in the coming months.

Could Afghans paroled into the US eventually get benefits?

People paroled into the US typically aren't eligible for benefits, though it allows individuals to apply for work permits. But the Biden administration is planning to extend some services typically afforded to refugees to Afghan evacuees provided temporary entry into the United States, according to a government document obtained by CNN.

The State Department issued a funding opportunity last Monday for a so-called Afghan Parolee Support Program that would provide relocation support services for 30 to 90 days after arrival, according to the document. That might include, for example, helping secure housing. Groups that enter into agreement with the federal government will be provided $2,275 for each Afghan parolee it serves, the document says.

But aid groups argue that's not enough.

"If they had come in as SIVs or through the traditional refugee resettlement process, they would be entitled to the reception and placement program for 90 days and then a broader set of services up to five years," said Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a refugee resettlement organization, in a call with reporters on Tuesday.

"Obviously, we are grateful that there is even these meager resources when these families, individuals arrive, but we know that three months of support for families who are fleeing with really very little does not set them up for success and is unfair given all the sacrifices that we asked of them," O'Mara Vignarajah added.

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Behind the scenes, refugee organizations are imploring the administration and Congress to provide additional services to those who fall outside of refugee benefits. In mid-August, President Joe Biden gave the go ahead for the use of additional funds, not to exceed $500 million, from the United States Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance Fund to meet unexpected and urgent needs of people at risk as a result of the situation in Afghanistan.

But Congress would need to make Afghan parolees eligible for long-term services -- like public benefits -- provided to refugees and authorize the funds to offer those resources. Otherwise, the refugee organizations are limited in what they can provide.

"We're scrambling because all the structures put in place in 1980 are not applicable to parolees," said Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, a refugee resettlement agency, referring to the Refugee Act of 1980. "These are people who laid their lives on the line for the United States and to have them serviced by refugee agencies but given fewer services than refugees get would be such an injustice."

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