Living in the U.S. since 2021 without a pathway to permanent residency has kept Afghan war refugees constantly fearful of possible repatriation to a nation run by the brutal Taliban regime, experts said during a National Immigration Forum webinar.
The evacuees’ current humanitarian parole status provides only temporary residency and is set to expire in August, generating gnawing doubt and a feeling of being adrift in the world, said panelist and refugee Naheed Sarabi, a Brookings Institution visiting fellow and a former deputy minister in Afghanistan’s pre-Taliban ministry of finance.
“When you have left that life behind and you come to the U.S. for protection … and here again you face uncertainty, where does that leave you? Right now, I see myself as a stateless person, a person who cannot go back home because I’m in danger. And today in the United States, I have an uncertain future.”
The solution to that angst lies with the anticipated introduction of the Afghan Adjustment Act, said Jennie Murray, president of the Forum and moderator of the June 8 livestream. The measure, which the previous Congress failed to pass, would provide permanent residency and continue the right-to-work provision currently allowed with parole status.
“We do anticipate bipartisan members of the House and Senate to reintroduce it in coming weeks. We know there is a lot of traction and bipartisan support,” Murray said.
While President Biden has announced that Afghan evacuees may apply for two-year extensions of their parole, that option will merely prolong the agony the roughly 76,000 refugees are experiencing, Murray said.
She urged Congress to recall that the U.S. passed similar adjustment acts to help refugees after earlier conflicts, such as World War II and the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. “We’re glad the Biden administration is renewing (parole), but Congress needs to — as they have in the past — recognize that this is a moment for them to make an additional consideration and say, ‘We need to go ahead and pass this.”
But Murray and the panelists also highlighted economic and national security benefits to passing the act.
“We’re in a crunch. We do not have the workers we need to meet our labor shortages. Millions of jobs are reposted every month,” she said. “America is open for business. We have tons of jobs across many sectors we need to hire for.”
Permanent residency and work eligibility for Afghans would help fill some of those needs, said Joseph Azam, chair of the board of the Afghan-American Foundation.
“This is one of the rightest, most entrepreneurial, most tech-savvy, quickest growing, quickest catching-up generations of Afghans ever,” said Azam, who emigrated to the United States in the 1980s during the Afghan-Soviet war and is a naturalized American citizen. “You have the journalists, entrepreneurs, policymakers, leaders, artists, college professors and CEOs of companies. That’s who has come here for safety because they cannot live safely in Afghanistan.”
And many U.S. companies already have hired from the population of recent Afghan evacuees and reported positive results, Azam said. “Businesses have stepped up, they have hired in almost every industry: agriculture, tech, health care, aviation, hotels, hospitality. All these industries have come together to hire Afghans. They’ve hired them, they’re training them, they’re helping them advance and they’re helping them settle into their lives here.”
But like their Afghan employees, these companies can’t help but wonder if it eventually will unravel if the Afghan Adjustment Act is not passed.
“There’s a tremendous amount of discomfort around the fact that that could all go away, these great people that they’ve hired, Azam explained. “These amazing women and men they’re supporting to rebuild their lives and rebuild their careers or start careers or get educated — all that can go away with a little bit of inaction by our congressional leaders.”
Many business leaders are nervously “questioning whether or not this is an investment to keep making, which is something we cannot afford to have happen,” he continued. “And all of them I’ve talked to are behind this kind of legislation because they understand it’s a way for them to support their employees and not just their employees, but their families.”
Residency uncertainty also undermines Afghan workers’ ability to concentrate while on the job, Azam said. “I’ve talked to Afghans who are in these big companies who tell me, ‘It’s hard for me to focus on work some days because I’m not sure what’s going to happen to my kids, if they’re still going to be in school. Or if I’m going to be able to have my partner be brought over eventually to safety.”
Failure to provide a permanent haven for Afghans will undermine the United States’ reputation with current and future allies it promises to support, Azam added. “It applies to every other theater and country where we make promises and have alliances of people that we have to gain trust with. And a lot of the Afghans I’ve talked to have been talking about what was the cost of that American handshake?”
The nation’s own security could be adversely affected by a track record of unkept promises, he said. “That impacts us globally, economically and from a national security perspective. … If people are looking at American handshakes and promises as something that come with a cost, we are in deep, deep trouble.”
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