Washington, DC – Nearly six months after they left Kabul, Sayed* and his family are starting a new life in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Their journey involved repeated attempts to get through Taliban checkpoints and reach the airport in the Afghan capital, a flight to Qatar, another flight to Germany, and then more than five months on a US military base in Wisconsin.
Sayed, who worked with Afghan security forces, says that arduous process offered him a lifeline – and he is now looking to build a future in the United States.
“My number one priority is to take care of my immigration paperwork because we have no place in Afghanistan; we were informally sentenced to death there,” he told Al Jazeera in a phone interview.
Sayed is one of more than 74,000 Afghans now living across the US after being housed on military bases for months following the chaotic Kabul evacuation in August last year.
But while Americans have been welcoming, advocates say efforts to make the Afghan newcomers feel at home are dotted with challenges, from immediate, logistical ones such as finding affordable housing, to structural ones like resolving their immigration status.
“It feels like a milestone, but it’s really just the beginning for people,” said Melanie Nezer, senior vice president for public affairs at HIAS, a refugee resettlement agency.
This week, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said only 1,200 evacuees remain at military facilities in the US, with seven of the eight US Northern Command bases that hosted Afghans after the August withdrawal completing their mission.
The Afghan evacuees are refugees, but their legal immigration status differs from those who come to the US as part of the refugee resettlement programme.
The vast majority of Afghans who came to the US after fleeing their country in August are on humanitarian parole – which gave them an entry pass into the country, but no path to permanent residency.
Humanitarian parole allows evacuees to remain in the country for up to two years, while they were also granted permits to work legally in the US before leaving the military bases. But beyond that, their legal status is on shaky grounds.
In a report (PDF) late last month, DHS said more than 36,400 Afghan refugees do not qualify for the special immigrant visa (SIV) programme designed for Afghans who worked with US forces during the 20-year war. At the same time, nearly 37,000 evacuees fall under the SIV scheme, according to the report. Their visa applications, which would grant them permanent residency if approved, can be processed while they remain in the country.
In the weeks since leaving a military camp in New Mexico, Ali*, who fled the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif with his sister after the Taliban takeover, has been able to find a house with the help of a local resettlement agency in Pittsburgh, and he is set to start a job at a hotel.
But even at this early stage of resettlement, Ali, who is not SIV-eligible, is worried about the possibility of being removed from the country. “I heard that people who do not have SIV, the US government will deport them after one or two years. It’s not clear. I hope it’s not that because a lot of people [do not] have SIV,” the 31-year-old told Al Jazeera.
Deporting people to Afghanistan seems implausible in the near future, especially since the US government does not recognise the Taliban authorities, but advocates say without legal residency, Afghan refugees will always face uncertainty.
“There’s real worry,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), a resettlement agency. “The fortunate thing is that people are entitled to up to two years of temporary residence in the US, but it’s obviously not a guarantee, and it does feel like a ticking time bomb.”
While Ali, who fears prosecution because his family owned a business and is known for being liberal-leaning and supportive of women’s rights, may have qualified for refugee resettlement, he cannot apply to that programme because he is already in the US.
Afghan Adjustment Act
Afghans who are in immigration “limbo” can formally seek asylum in the US, but advocates say filing applications for thousands of evacuees is not a practical solution. The country’s asylum system is already experiencing an enormous backlog, with an average processing time of more than four years.
“We are not going to be able to provide the support that they need to apply for asylum,” Nezer of HIAS told Al Jazeera. “The legal services just aren’t available. Even with all the volunteers that are stepping up, you’re talking about probably hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of hours of legal advice.”
HIAS, LIRS and other resettlement agencies have been urging Congress to pass a law that would create a special process for Afghan evacuees to adjust their immigration status.
The yet-to-be-introduced Afghan Adjustment Act (PDF) would help resettlement agencies focus their efforts on the immediate needs of Afghan refugees and avoid additional strain on the system, advocates say. Similar laws have been passed in the past to accommodate Vietnamese, Cuban and Iraqi refugees.
Vignarajah said if the US government – particularly the previous administration – had lived up to its commitments to allies and at-risk Afghans, it would have moved people to the US through the SIV and refugee resettlement programmes in the years and months leading up to the withdrawal.
But now that thousands have been hurriedly evacuated and entered the country on humanitarian parole, a law to adjust their legal status is needed, she added.
“Getting this Afghan Adjustment Act has been a major focus of our organisation and many others – trying to rally support on [Capitol Hill] to get that passed because it would be much faster than having everybody go through their own individualised [asylum] applications,” Vignarajah told Al Jazeera.
Adam Bates, policy counsel at the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), an advocacy group, said an adjustment law for Afghans also would help SIV applicants, noting that having a pending visa application is not an adequate immigration status.
“Even folks who were paroled in and are active SIV applicants, some of them are going to be erroneously denied and end up in the same spot as the other parolees who don’t have a path to status,” Bates told Al Jazeera.
“There are a lot of erroneous denials to that programme and just mistakes, a lot of logistical difficulties in terms of people having to demonstrate their employment and get HR letters from contractors that may not exist any more.”
In the meantime, Afghan evacuees have been sent to communities across the country, many of which are of their own choosing and where they may have relatives or friends. The evacuees are entitled to the same services as people who move to the US through the refugee resettlement programme, including work permits and help from resettlement agencies.
One of the earliest challenges is finding housing in an economy where rents and the cost of living are on the rise. “A lot of folks are staying in temporary housing, which is decent, and some of it is actually really nice,” said Yael Schacher, deputy director for the Americas and Europe at Refugees International (RI), an advocacy group. “But then that only lasts for a short while.”
For the first three months after leaving the base, evacuees have their basic needs met through resettlement agencies, which receive funding from the State Department’s Reception and Placement (R&P) assistance programme.
In that time, refugees have to start becoming self-reliant. Resettlement agencies offer job and language training and connect the newcomers with potential employers. Private companies as well as volunteers and individual donors also provide support.
After that initial period, the evacuees can apply for federally-backed aid and welfare programmes for low-income families through the states.
Sayed, the Afghan refugee, has been living with his family in a hotel room with a small kitchen since leaving the army base. While he says the accommodations are better than the military camp, he stressed that finding a home is his top priority.
“We haven’t met any lawyer or any person who can take care of our paperwork for legal stay in America. So far, it has been all about the resettlement – where to go, getting food, housing,” he said.
Without a permanent address though, Sayed said his efforts to bring his nine-year-old son to the US have stalled; the boy fell ill while the family was trying to reach the airport in Kabul, and is still in Afghanistan being cared for by Sayed’s parents and sisters.
“The problem is that so far, I could not do anything for him,” he told Al Jazeera. “Because, on the base, you cannot start any kind of process to bring him here. If you start a process like that, you need to have an exact address.”
*Interviewees are identified by pseudonyms or first names due to safety concerns.