US Senate passes $1.7 trillion spending bill without Afghan refugee law

The 4,155-page spending bill includes $858bn for military spending and $45bn in additional assistance for Ukraine.

The US Capitol Building
The US Senate has passed an enormous spending bill that has been criticised for leaving out a provision that would have provided a legal pathway for Afghan refugees to stay in the United States [J Scott Applewhite/AP Photo]

The United States Senate has passed a $1.7 trillion spending bill that includes hundreds of billions of dollars for military spending but fails to include a bill seen as crucial for Afghan refugees stuck in legal limbo.

The Senate passed the enormous 4,155-page bill with bipartisan support on Thursday, with a vote of 68 to 29. The bill, which provides funding to the US government through September 30, must now pass the House of Representatives on Friday to avoid a partial government shutdown.

The bill budgets about $858bn for military spending, $772.5bn for various domestic programmes and $45bn for another round of military and economic aid for Ukraine.

“This is one of the most significant appropriations packages we have done in a very long time,” Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on Thursday. “The range of people it helps is large and deep.”

Immigrant rights and Afghan-US advocacy groups, however, have pointed out the bill fails to include a provision that would have offered a legal pathway for tens of thousands of Afghan refugees who arrived in the US following the collapse of the US-backed government in Afghanistan in August 2021.

Many were brought to the US through a programme known as “humanitarian parole”, which enabled them to quickly enter the country and shielded them from deportation for a two-year period. But that two-year window is set to expire next summer.

A solution was proposed through the bipartisan Afghan Adjustment Act (AAA), which would have offered Afghan refugees a pathway to a more permanent status if they went through additional vetting and met certain requirements.

But while the bill received support across the political spectrum, a number of Republican politicians attacked it on national security grounds, expressing concerns about the thoroughness of the vetting process. The Afghan Adjustment Act was ultimately dropped from the Senate’s spending bill.

“Find me another cause as bipartisan as this,” Arash Azizzada, co-director of the progressive US-based group Afghans For A Better Tomorrow, told Al Jazeera.

“This feels like another betrayal of Afghans by the United States by a small group of Senators who hold deep anti-immigrant views of our community, who now throw 80,000 Afghans in legal limbo, in what is especially a dark week for us. Our community is being left to pick up the pieces yet again.”

Azizzada pointed to the failure of the Afghan Adjustment Act as the latest in a series of bad news for Afghans, following a decision by the Taliban government to ban women from attending university.

Afghan advocacy groups such as the US-based Project ANAR said the perception that migrants and refugees from Afghanistan and Muslim countries represented a security threat was “rooted in racism, not reality”.

In a statement, Project ANAR blamed a “small group of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim Senators” for blocking the addition of the Afghan Adjustment Act to the omnibus spending bill, which needed several Republican votes to overcome a filibuster.

Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa was one of the leading voices opposing the act. He blamed Democratic President Joe Biden for failing to properly screen the refugees.

“Congress should not even begin to consider proposals related to sweeping immigration status changes for evacuees, such as an Afghan Adjustment Act, until the Biden administration, at the very least, guarantees the integrity of and fully responds to longstanding congressional oversight requests regarding the vetting and evacuee resettlement process,” Grassley said in a statement.

“Anything less would be irresponsible,” he added.

Yet, immigrant rights advocates say the Biden administration has overwhelmingly rejected Afghans who have applied for humanitarian parole since the fall of the US-backed Afghan government. They accuse the US of employing a racist double standard as it largely approves similar petitions from Ukrainians displaced by the Russian invasion.

Afghan refugees have told Al Jazeera that the uncertainty around their immigration status has become a source of concern as they try to adjust to life in the US. Many have family members back in Afghanistan they hope to bring to the US.

The $45bn of aid budgeted for Ukraine comes after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy arrived in Washington, DC on Wednesday, in his first trip outside his home country since Russia began a full-scale invasion in February.

Zelenskyy said US aid was not charity but an “investment in the global security and democracy that we handle in the most responsible way”.

Thursday’s spending bill also includes a 10-percent increase for the country’s already substantial military budget, bringing the total to $858bn, several times larger than the annual military budgets of competitor countries such as China and Russia.

“The world’s greatest military will get the funding increase that it needs, outpacing inflation,” said Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

The spending package also features $40bn for emergency spending in communities that have been affected by natural disasters such as drought, flood, and wildfires.

Source: Al Jazeera, The Associated Press