Nasreen Sajady, advocacy director for the Afghan Cultural Society in Minneapolis, is participating in meetings with elected officials to garner support for the Afghan Adjustment Act. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Advocates for Afghan refugees are pushing for swift passage of a bipartisan bill in Congress that would grant Afghan refugees a path to permanent residency in the United States.

One year after the U.S. military conducted an emergency evacuation out of Afghanistan, U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, and five other senators introduced the Afghan Adjustment Act. The bill would allow Afghans to apply for a green card.

Green-card status would grant Afghan refugees protection against deportation, and give them the ability to sponsor family members left behind in Afghanistan, and the opportunity to make long-term plans in the United States. The legislation has been introduced in both the House and Senate, and has the support of Democrats and Republicans.

“Our Afghan allies put everything at risk to support our troops,” Klobuchar said in an email. “It’s what we did in the wake of the Vietnam War to help refugees, including many Hmong refugees who now call Minnesota home, and it’s critical that we take similar steps to help Afghans who fled their country find stability and community in the U.S.”

 “Our Afghan allies put everything at risk to support our troops.”

Senator Amy Klobuchar

As Klobuchar noted, the bill is similar to others Congress has passed in response to other global conflicts. The Indochina Migration and Refugee Act of 1975 granted Southeast Asians, including a large population of Minnesota’s Hmong refugees, a path toward legal permanent residency.

Here’s what the Afghan Adjustment Act would do:

  • Allow Afghans who are in the United States under humanitarian parole status the chance to apply for permanent legal status, also known as a green card.
  • Expand the Special Immigrant Visa program, which the government granted to many Afghan refugees who aided the U.S. military in Afghanistan, to include more people.
  • Establish a task force to support Afghans outside of the U.S. who are eligible for a Special Immigrant Visa. 

The bill would most impact Afghans with humanitarian parole status. That designation allows Afghans to live and work in the United States for two years, a status set to expire in August 2023. As it stands, Afghans with humanitarian parole can gain permanent status by applying for asylum, but the system is experiencing a five-year backlog. If passed, the Afghan Adjustment Act will clear a less cumbersome path toward obtaining a green card, which generally takes one to two years.

Bipartisan support

Immigration policy can be complicated, but attorney Lindsey Greising, of the Minneapolis-based Advocates for Human Rights, said the fact that the United States adopted similar legislation in the past means the bill should be given similar support.

“We’ve seen that lots of elected leaders are on board and understand that something needs to happen,” Greising said. “The stumbling block has been how urgent it is. People still have parole until next August, and so the ability to drag feet has delayed the process.”

A total of 125 U.S. House members support the Afghan Adjustment Act—116 Democrats and nine Republicans. While there is no complete list of supporters in the Senate, three Republicans and two Democrats introduced the bill. 

Six out of 10 members of Congress from Minnesota have expressed their support for the Afghan Adjustment Act—representatives Dean Phillips, Ilhan Omar, Betty McCollum, Angie Craig, and senators Klobuchar and Tina Smith.

“Thousands of Afghans risked their lives to help Americans during the war in Afghanistan. As a result of their service, most will never be able to safely return to their former home,” Smith said in a written statement. “We have a responsibility to help those who helped us, and that starts with a pathway to permanent legal status here in the United States.”

Sahan Journal reached out to representatives Tom Emmer, Michelle Fischbach, Brad Finstad, and Pete Stauber, all Republicans, who have not publicly announced their stance for the Afghan Adjustment Act. None responded to requests asking for comment on the bill. 

Republicans have been sharply critical of the Biden administration’s abrupt and chaotic exit from Afghanistan.

In September, Emmer sent a letter to President Joe Biden  asking for clarity about the status of U.S. citizens and Afghan partners seeking Special Immigrant Visas who were left behind in Afghanistan.

“Last year’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan was a preventable tragedy that left hundreds of Americans and tens of thousands of our Afghan partners at the mercy of the Taliban,” Emmer said in a prepared statement. “This is a cruel injustice to individuals who collectively saved countless American lives.”

Afghan refugees in limbo

Greising is part of Evacuate Our Allies, a coalition organizing advocates to meet with their elected officials to garner support for the Afghan Adjustment Act. Evacuate Our Allies has held almost 100 meetings nationwide. 

Nasreen Sajady, advocacy director for the Afghan Cultural Society in Minneapolis, participated in Evacuate Our Allies training meetings that  typically drew more than 100 people. Advocates learned about key points to discuss with Republican and Democratic politicians. 

Sajady said that while most of Minnesota’s elected officials support the bill, local advocates are still trying to secure a meeting with Emmer. 

“These folks were promised this, and if they go back they will likely be killed,” Sajady said. “If it doesn’t pass and they can’t get their green cards, this is life or death for many of these people.”

Devotees from Minnesota’s Afghan community gathered at an iftar on Saturday, April 30 at The Blake School in Hopkins, Minn. The humanitarian organization Alight hosted the event. Credit: Images courtesy of Alight and Marjan Samadi Photography

Greising said that it’s possible that the Biden administration may pledge not to deport Afghans after their parolee status expires next year. Previous presidential administrations have set similar protections for Liberian refugees, for example. But such protections can change under a new president less sympathetic toward immigrants.

“One of the biggest things people don’t think about is how difficult it is to be in limbo,” Greising said. “That’s really traumatizing. Even though folks currently have status, they’re not reporting that they feel confident. They constantly have their eye on August 2023.”

“One of the biggest things people don’t think about is how difficult it is to be in limbo. That’s really traumatizing.”

Lindsey Greising of Advocates for Human Rights

Afghan refugees don’t necessarily have the same status as other refugees in the United States. Refugees from, for example, Somalia have undergone an additional vetting process before coming to the U.S. In this example, a Somali refugee would have been vetted at a refugee camp in Kenya. They can then apply for a green card after one year of living in the U.S. The same applies for people with asylum status—once they’ve been granted asylum, they can apply for a green card after a year. A green card puts former refugees on a path toward citizenship and allows them to sponsor family members, especially if they’re facing unrest abroad.

Afghan refugees with humanitarian parole only have temporary status in the United States. Without the Afghan Adjustment Act, they would instead apply for asylum first and then a green card. But Greising said that’s not a guarantee of protection. Additionally, it could take five years to be granted asylum, given the system’s current backlog.

“We’ve already seen some unfortunate denials,” Greising said. “Folks without status are facing potential deportation back to harm. If you’re in the U.S. without status, you’re always at risk of being a target for immigration enforcement.”

‘This needs to happen yesterday

Greising said the bill’s supporters in Congress first tried to pass it through a larger government spending resolution. Now, Greising said the goal is to include it in another spending resolution or the yearly National Defense Authorization Act, both of which must pass by mid-December.

The Afghan Adjustment Act could also be passed as a standalone bill, but with the gridlock in Congress between Democrats and Republicans, standalone bills rarely pass, Greising said. 

“Given the broad bipartisan support and the diverse coalition that I’ve been working with, it does really seem like it should be moving forward,” Greising said. “The biggest issue is understanding the urgency of action—getting them to understand why this needs to happen yesterday.”

With humanitarian parole for Afghans expiring next August, the window to obtain a green card before expiration has already passed, even if Congress passes the Afghan Adjustment Act by December, Greising said. 

“Our push is that Congress understands that they need to take action as quickly as possible, to give us the longest runway possible, so that people are able to apply well before their current status is expired,” she said. 

Hibah Ansari is a reporter for Sahan Journal covering immigration and politics. She was named the 2022 Young Journalist of the Year by the Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists. She’s a graduate...