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Biden administration revamps visa process for Afghan refugees

Abdul
Desiree D'Iorio
/
WSHU
Abdul is one of over 500 Afghan refugees that the Connecticut-based resettlement agency IRIS is helping to navigate the immigration system. He did not want his full face or name used due to fear for his family's safety in Afghanistan.

Resettlement agencies across the U.S. have been inundated since the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan last year. The Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Service (IRIS) in Connecticut is helping more than 500 Afghans navigate the immigration system.

One of them is Abdul, whose name is being withheld to protect his family still in Afghanistan. Speaking through a translator in the courtyard of the resettlement agency, he told a complicated story of two failed visa applications. He said he’s anxious for the state department to approve his third one.

“I have served the Americans in Afghanistan and I would love to serve the Americans in this country, too,” Abdul said.

He’s here on humanitarian parole. But that’s a temporary program, and Abdul’s will expire next August. He applied for a Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV, so he can stay in the U.S. permanently. But he's struggling to meet state department requirements for documents and recommendations that can prove he worked with the U.S. military and government contractors — employers he lost touch with years ago.

“But they’re not responding, most of them,” Abdul said about his efforts to reach his past employers. “It’s no answers, no response. People have changed. The numbers have changed.”

Now, the Biden administration is changing how it processes visa applications for people from Afghanistan. Tens of thousands of Afghans are trying to get permanent residence in the U.S. Like Abdul, many of them assisted American troops in Afghanistan during the war. Some have been waiting years for the state department to approve their applications.

Lauren Petersen, an immigration attorney with IRIS, is one of the lawyers working on Abdul’s case. She said many of her clients tell the same story about their rush to leave Afghanistan:

“They're destroying documents,” Petersen said. “They're wiping their phones clean. The last thing they want is to go through a Taliban checkpoint and have any evidence that they worked for anyone associated with the west.”

For applicants who do have their documents, Petersen said it takes an average of 19 months for the government to approve a SIV, leaving Afghans like Abdul in limbo since their temporary parole can expire sooner.

To try to address the backlog, the Biden administration has announced major changes to the immigration process. In October, the U.S. will stop accepting applications for temporary humanitarian parole.

White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre said that will allow the government to concentrate its resources on permanent visas.

“We are adopting a new model where Afghan arrivals will travel directly to the communities where they will be moving to with the help of refugee resettlement organizations, without a safe-haven stopover in the United States,” said Jean-Pierre at a September news briefing.

Advocates have been critical of the move to end temporary humanitarian parole, arguing the government should offer as many opportunities as possible for Afghans to escape.

Meanwhile, a bipartisan bill in Congress would overhaul the immigration process even further.

Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal is a cosponsor of the Afghan Adjustment Act, which he said would give refugees options beyond humanitarian parole or SIV status.

“They can apply for permanent legal residency — in other words, green cards — which is a third status that cuts through a lot of the red tape,” Blumenthal said.

It’s not a new concept. The U.S. made similar accommodations for refugees after the wars in Vietnam and Iraq.

Petersen, the immigration lawyer, said the new law would help.

“Being able to just put in your green card application, which is relatively straightforward, that would be a huge relief,” Petersen said. “And then it would definitely reduce some of the bottleneck in the SIV queue.”

The bill has support from a vocal constituency of veterans who say the U.S. is obligated to help the Afghans who assisted during the war.

But it’s not clear when, or if, Congress will vote on it.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.