Time is running out for Afghan refugees

Bloomberg Opinion editorial board (TNS)

While it’s hard to imagine Congress left many things out of the 4,000-page omnibus spending bill President Joe Biden signed into law last week, there were some key omissions. Among the least explicable was the Afghan Adjustment Act.

During America’s chaotic withdrawal from Kabul in 2021, the Biden administration granted so-called humanitarian parole to more than 70,000 Afghan evacuees to allow their entry into the U.S. The designation expires after two years. Almost half of these evacuees don’t qualify for special immigrant visas set aside for Afghans who fought alongside American troops or worked directly for U.S. government agencies. Among them are civil society leaders, women’s rights activists, journalists and others who worked to advance U.S. policy and build a more open Afghan society.

Refugees from Afghanistan are escorted to a waiting bus after arriving and being processed at Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Virginia on Aug. 23, 2021. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

Will Congress really send 80,000 Afghans back to the Taliban?

Without an adjustment in their immigration status, these Afghans will have to request asylum to stay in the U.S. In light of the Taliban’s brutality, a U.S. judge would be hard-pressed to deny that evacuees have a well-founded fear of persecution if deported. But that’s no guarantee: The asylum process is confusing, expensive and requires documentation that in many cases was destroyed or left behind in the rush to leave. Moreover, because of backlogs in the system, it could take years for Afghans’ cases to be heard, significantly limiting their ability to find work and build new lives in the U.S. Success would put them on a one-year path to a green card.

Introduced last August, the Afghan Adjustment Act provides a common-sense solution, allowing Afghan evacuees to skip directly to that final stage. The U.S. has previously extended such privileges to refugees from Vietnam and Cuba. The bill has bipartisan backing — including five Republican co-sponsors in the Senate — and widespread public support: One poll found 76% of respondents favored the bill once its details were explained.

However, the act’s opponents — chief among them, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, the ranking member on the Judiciary Committee — managed to block its passage, citing concerns about security lapses in the original screening of the evacuees. In fact, the act would require all applicants to undergo additional, rigorous vetting, including in-person interviews. Agencies would need to brief Congress on their screening plans ahead of time and the Department of Homeland Security would maintain a vetting database for evacuees. Any applicants who refused additional vetting would have their bids rejected.

The inability of Congress to resolve the status of Afghans isn’t just cruel; it’s damaging to national security. In any future conflict, “potential allies will remember what happens now with our Afghan allies,” as more than 30 retired officers, including three former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote to Congress last month. Allowing this issue to slide further will only tend to confirm accusations of U.S. hypocrisy.

Supporters of the legislation plan to reintroduce it in the next Congress. They need to move quickly. Even if the bill passes, it will be months before guidelines and vetting procedures are worked out, and evacuees can begin applying. With the legal status of Afghan evacuees expiring in August, a vote needs to take place before spring.

While incoming legislators will no doubt have their own priorities, the next Congress should resolve this matter without delay. Anything less would be a betrayal of America’s allies and its ideals.

— From the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board (TNS).