Afghan Adjustment Act: What does it mean for refugees in US?

A bipartisan group of legislators in the US Congress have introduced the Afghan Adjustment Act (AAA), a bill aimed at giving tens of thousands of Afghans in the United States a path to citizenship.

Since the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, the Department of Homeland Security says it has brought more than 80,000 Afghans to the country. Many came in under humanitarian parole, a fast-track system that enabled tens of thousands of people to enter the country quickly, after the collapse of the US-backed Afghan government, and a chaotic and messy airlift out of Kabul.

Humanitarian parole allows Afghans to live and work in the US for two years but does not offer a clear path to permanent residency. In this way, it differs from programmes such as the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) for Afghans who worked with the US government.

The AAA, which was introduced in Congress in August and could be brought up for a vote before the end of the current session, may offer a new process for parolees.

Here, Al Jazeera takes a look at the proposed legislation and what effect it would have on the lives of Afghan refugees in the US:

What is in the bill?

The AAA would create a path to permanent residency for Afghans brought to the US through parole if they meet certain criteria and undergo additional vetting.

It would also expand SIV eligibility to a few additional groups, including the Female Tactical Teams of Afghanistan, the Afghan National Army Special Operations Command, the Afghan Air Force, and the Special Mission Wing of Afghanistan. The bill would establish a task force to develop a strategy for assisting SIV-eligible individuals still in Afghanistan.

Is there support for the bill?

When Kabul fell to the Taliban last year, there was an outpouring of support for Afghans, along with calls to stand by those who had worked with the US during the two-decade war. Some legislators see the AAA as a much-needed step towards fulfilling that promise.

An October 2021 poll found that 72 percent of Americans favoured granting entry to the US to Afghans who worked with the US or Afghan governments, and 42 percent supported granting entry to others who feared living under the Taliban.

US President Joe Biden asked Congress to take action to provide Afghans with a path to permanent residency in May. Immigrant rights groups have urged legislators to move swiftly.

The International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian organisation that works with refugees, called the AAA “a clear demonstration of American values in action”, while the Afghan resettlement aid group 5ive Pillars said it could “lift tens of thousands of Afghan allies out of impending legal limbo”.

Will the bill pass?

The chances of the AAA successfully passing through the US Congress are not certain. Despite its emphasis on rigorous security vetting for applicants, it is not clear whether that will be enough to gain support from the 10 Republicans needed to overcome a potential filibuster in the Senate, or whether it will even be brought to a vote anytime soon.

Republicans have cited a February report by the Department of Defense that found 50 Afghans had been granted entry despite “potentially significant security concerns”.

The bill’s chances could also be affected by the midterm elections in November, which could see Congress shift to Republican control.

As it stands, the legislation has the support of a wide variety of legislators, including Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and moderate Democrats such as Senators Amy Klobuchar and Chris Coons. “We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the Afghan people for the ways they supported US forces for almost 20 years, often at great personal risk,” Coons said in a statement.

What can Afghans do if the bill fails?

If the AAA fails to move forward, Afghans who were paroled into the US will have to apply for permanent residency through traditional programmes, such as refugee admissions or SIV.

But traditional programmes are plagued by enormous backlogs and long processing times. Navigating the US immigration system can require enlisting the help of immigration lawyers, which can be complicated and expensive. Some Afghan American and immigrant rights groups offer help with this process, but their resources are scarce.

Since March, the Biden administration has also allowed Afghans in the US to apply for “temporary protected status”, shielding them from deportation — but just for 18 months. If other immigration pathways fail, many could find themselves in limbo.

What will happen to Afghans who are still overseas?

While the US was able to evacuate tens of thousands of Afghans last year, many were left behind, and the pathway for them to come to the US looks increasingly shaky.

Nearly 50,000 more Afghans have applied for humanitarian parole since July 2021, according to US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), but as of this month, just 410 have been accepted.

The majority have not yet received a response to their applications, and USCIS says that about 70 percent of these applicants are in Afghanistan, while the rest are in third-party countries.

What are the current conditions in Afghanistan?

While Afghanistan has seen an overall decrease in violence since the US war ended, the country has been devastated economically by the evaporation of international aid, along with US sanctions and a cash freeze.

Millions of people are at risk of famine, according to the United Nations, and Afghan women have seen their access to education and personal freedoms rolled back by the Taliban. A July report from the UN detailed a litany of human rights abuses, including abductions and executions, since the group came back to power in August 2021.

Could the US be doing more to bring Afghans to the country?

Washington has been heavily criticised for its failure to offer assistance to Afghans left behind, and rights groups have accused the US immigration system of employing a racist double-standard in how it applies parole to Afghans.

“We’re still asking the government to use its generous parole authority to bring more Afghans to safety,” Laila Ayub, an immigration lawyer who helps Afghans apply for parole, told Al Jazeera. “This kind of legislation can ensure that any Afghans who get here have a pathway to legal status, but there has to be an ongoing effort to bring more Afghans to safety.”

USCIS says it receives about 2,000 requests for humanitarian parole in a typical year, and is struggling to cope with the scale of demand.

Could the US create a programme for Afghans like it did for Ukrainians?

Critics say the US has shown it can address these issues when it wants to, by creating a special programme that streamlines the parole process and waives certain requirements, as it did for Ukrainians in April.

When the White House announced the creation of its “Uniting for Ukraine” programme, some Afghans lamented what they saw as a double standard.

The US waived application fees for Ukrainians, while Afghan applicants paid about $20m in fees, according to a report by the investigative journalism outlet Reveal. Last November, the US announced it would exempt Afghan parolees from filing fees and “streamline application processing”.

But the Biden administration last week promised to discontinue the use of humanitarian parole to bring large numbers of at-risk Afghans into the US, shifting its focus to resettling those already in the country. It was unclear how the new policy, which takes effect on October 1, would affect Afghans with pending parole applications.

What does the future hold for Afghans?

As conditions deteriorate inside Afghanistan, more Afghans may embark on perilous journeys in search of refuge in other countries.

Afghan-American advocates say the US must do more to give Afghans a new home in the country, while alleviating suffering in Afghanistan by rethinking some of its economic policies, such as sanctions and the cash freeze.

Afghans in the US, meanwhile, face open questions about their future. Resettling in a new country always comes with challenges, but without a secure pathway to permanent status, that process is mired in uncertainty.

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