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Bureaucratic red tape could leave thousands of Afghan refugees cut off from aid in the US

  • In late August, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken authorized “humanitarian parole” for Afghans.
  • The process allows Afghans to escape the Taliban and come to the United States.
  • But it does not offer permanent legal status or access to refugee services.

The Biden administration has told refugee agencies to prepare for resettling potentially tens of thousands of people fleeing the threat of persecution in Afghanistan. But because of the suddenness with which the Afghan government collapsed, compounded by a severe backlog of applications in the US immigration system — and the lengthy visa process even in the best of times — many could be arriving not as formal refugees but as “parolees.”

In reality, these people are the same: They have been determined to have a credible fear of serious harm and have been subject to extreme vetting to ensure they pose no risk to US national security. But, legally, being granted “humanitarian parole” does not confer the same rights as refugee status, in terms of either public benefits or being put on a path to permanent legal residence. Once here, these Afghans will need to apply for asylum or some other visa.

But how are they supposed to make ends meet in this country after fleeing, with next to nothing, from a nation where the per capita income is about $500 a year?

Cathryn Miller-Wilson is executive director of HIAS Pennsylvania, one of the refugee resettlement agencies that has been welcoming the Afghan men, women, and children who have been flown to the Philadelphia airport.

Here’s what she told Insider.

Afghans on “parole” do not have access to traditional refugee services. But an official at another resettlement agency told Insider they expect to receive $2,275 per Afghan on humanitarian parole. Can you offer more detail?

The $2,275 is divided between the parolee and the agency so that the agency receives about $1,080 and the parolee receives about $1,200. The money is provided per person per 30 days for 90 days. This is the same amount that refugees receive when they are resettled.

How does this differ from the refugee program, then?

The parolees will receive a little extra money to pay for legal fees because the legal status that the parolees have is not equivalent to refugee status. It is a temporary status that allows them to enter the country but does not provide immediate work authorization, access to Medicaid, or other safety-net benefits. Refugee status provides access to these safety net benefits, which are critically important for a refugee who is learning English and looking for work while they get acclimated to the US.

What are the next steps for Afghans who arrive on humanitarian parole?

The legal fees will help parolees pay an attorney to file for asylum on their behalf. A helpful thing, but, because of the backlog in asylum cases, the asylum process could take years. Once you file for asylum, work authorization will be issued approximately six months after filing. But the issuing of work authorization, otherwise known as Employment Authorization Documents (EADs), are backlogged as well so it could take longer than six months.

What problems does that pose?

Currently, the law requires that employers examine original EADs — not copies or electronic versions. So this causes other problems as well. With the increasing problems with the US mail service we have had clients who are notified by electronic mail that their EADs have been issued but the actual EAD doesn’t arrive until a week or two or even three after the electronic notification. So this delays their ability to look for a job. We have also had clients who never received their EAD because it got lost in the mail. They then have to request another one and that process can take several months.

It seems like there’s still a rough road ahead for many parolees. How can the government help make it easier? And how can those reading this assist this population?

There are many ways that the government can make this easier. First, there is the problem of humanitarian parole in and of itself. This is not a legal status, it’s a kind of visa that permits someone to enter the US. The government could, at the military bases, grant these parolees refugee status so that they get all that comes with that: immediate work authorization and eligibility for safety net benefits including Medicaid and eligibility for government-funded employment programs that exist in order to help refugees and asylees.

Alternatively, they could make humanitarian parole a legal status that comes with all of those things rather than simply an entry visa.

Another option is to immediately staff up both the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services and asylum officers so that these applications, which parolees will have to file once they get resettled in order to gain permanent status, can be processed much more timely — they now take years. There should be sufficient staff to make it take weeks or a few months.

Another thing that the government can do, given that the crisis is ongoing, is to waive filing fees for Afghans who are now seeking to get their family members out of Afghanistan.

The largest problem that can be fixed by our government is separating the security vetting process from the other processes that any immigrant undergoes. Once vetted, persons should be allowed to come to this country without so much additional delay and bureaucracy. Providing pathways to those who are fleeing, those who want to be with their loved ones, those who are resilient and courageous and love democracy is good for our country as well as, in this instance, our moral obligation.

Have a news tip? Email this reporter: [email protected]

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