Bloomberg Law
Free Newsletter Sign Up
Login
BROWSE
Bloomberg Law
Welcome
Login
Advanced Search Go
Free Newsletter Sign Up

Afghan, Ukrainian Evacuees Lack Path to Stay as Violence Rages

Aug. 17, 2022, 9:14 AM

Nearly 76,000 Afghans and 100,000 Ukrainians have arrived in the US since President Joe Biden set up options to speedily assist people fleeing conflicts in those countries.

One option allowed the evacuees to live and work in the US for up to two years. But those evacuees face a murky pathway to permanent residence, as many stand to lose their right to stay in the US past next year, and Congress has yet to agree on a way to let them stay legally.

Returning home could be especially dangerous for Afghans, but to stay longer, they face a bureaucratic slog that can take years with no guarantee they will win approval to stay.

“We served the United States, shoulder by shoulder,” said Khovaja Samir Seddiqi, an Afghan who arrived in the US last August after assisting American military staff in evacuating other Afghans. “But we need more.”

Biden and a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), are trying to persuade Congress to give (H.R. 8685, S. 4787) Afghans a special pathway to permanent residence.

A similar effort failed in May, around the same time Republicans, including Sens. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), Rob Portman (Ohio), and James Inhofe (Okla.) argued that Afghan arrivals weren’t properly screened before entering the US and could endanger Americans.

US officials thoroughly vetted the Afghans before they arrived, often at military bases in Europe and the Middle East, before clearing them to travel to America, Bloomberg Government previously reported. Portman in a Tuesday statement repeated those concerns, adding that a Defense Department watchdog report found that the US didn’t use all of its tactical records to screen evacuees.

Listen to the recording of Bloomberg Government’s Twitter Space with our homeland security, immigration, and White House reporters.

As for Ukrainians, the US government’s position is that most won’t want to remain here after war, a national security spokesman for the president said, adding that Biden will monitor the conflict with Russia to “ensure we continue supporting them during this difficult time.”

“It’s very difficult to ask people who rebuilt their lives to then leave,” said Nili Yossinger, executive director of Refugee Congress, a group of resettled refugees that advises on American immigration policy.

Americans Involved

Shortly after the US withdrew from Afghanistan, philanthropists brought together small groups of Americans to provide practical and financial support to Afghans who fled. That’s unusual for refugees, who typically get most of their support from government officials and resettlement organizations and not individuals, multiple refugee advocates said.

That idea carried over to Ukrainians, who now generally must get an American citizen or organization to sponsor them to enter the US. More than 104,000 people and nongovernmental organizations in the US have applied to sponsor Ukrainians since last April, according to figures provided to Bloomberg Government by the Department of Homeland Security on Aug. 12.

“We’re letting the American public play a role in a way we haven’t allowed before,” said Anya McMurray, president of Welcome.US, a group backed by four former presidents that is helping connect Americans with Ukrainians in need of sponsorship.

Before Biden launched the sponsorship option, Ukrainians grew so desperate that about 22,000 traveled to the southwest border with Mexico to try to enter the US, according to DHS figures.

The number of Ukrainians attempting to enter via the southern border dropped sharply in May, the first full month after the Biden administration launched its sponsorship option and homeland security officials began referring Ukrainians at the border to that application. US officials reported encountering just 117 Ukrainian nationals at that border in June, according to DHS.

McMurray’s team is recruiting attorneys in case Congress doesn’t create a special pathway for Afghans and they’ll need to apply for asylum, she said. DHS said it will generally make a final decision on applications from Afghan evacuees within 150 days of filing.

Seddiqi, who fled Afghanistan last year, is an immigration paralegal assisting attorneys on Afghan asylum cases at Church World Service in North Carolina. Applying for asylum generally requires help from an attorney—an expensive prospect for people who are still getting settled in the US, Seddiqi said. Creating a special pathway for Afghans to stay permanently would cut down on the stacks of paperwork and uncertainty his clients are facing, he said.

The US has for decades resettled tens of thousands of refugees each year who are fleeing persecution and war in other countries. President Donald Trump lowered the ceiling on such evacuees each year of his presidency, as part of his efforts to cut legal and illegal immigration.

Even though Biden raised the US cap on refugees to 125,000, understaffed federal agencies and resettlement groups are still rebuilding from the Trump cuts. From fall 2021 to July 2022, the US admitted just over 17,000 people from countries across the world, according to the State Department. The figures don’t account for the vast majority of the Afghans and Ukrainians brought to the US.

“It’s not that” the US can’t welcome refugees, said Ann O’Brien of IRIS-Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, a refugee resettlement group in Connecticut. “It’s about getting the machinery up and resourced again. And getting the American public tooled to help.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Courtney Rozen in Washington at crozen@bgov.com