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Ukraine can’t be the excuse for unfinished business in Afghanistan

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More than 3 million Ukrainians have fled their home country since Russia’s invasion, and their exodus could prompt the biggest regional humanitarian crisis in decades

Within certain constraints, President Joe Biden and our Congress have responded with strong solidarity and enthusiasm to the plight of the Ukrainian people. 

This is good, and I’m glad to see it. 

But we just ended a decades-long U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan. Our country incurred profound costs in the evacuation from Kabul that occurred just seven months ago. But, if the lack of any direct mention in President Biden’s State of the Union address is any indication, we seem to have entirely moved on — even before our mission was completed.

After so many have given so much to rescue and resettle Afghans to the U.S., it would be obscene for Congress not to do their part to finish what we started.

The most profound costs of that evacuation, of course, are lives lost: 13 members of the U.S. military died in a terrorist attack while bravely evacuating U.S. citizens as well as U.S. allies and other Afghans. And more than 170 Afghans lost their lives as well. We dare not forget or dishonor these sacrifices. 

The American people have also made incredible private sacrifices to welcome people. In my role at World Relief, which has partnered with hundreds of local churches and thousands of volunteers to welcome approximately 3,500 Afghans since August, I’ve seen our warehouses overflowing with items intended to furnish refugees’ new homes. I’ve seen generous financial support that has helped them establish their lives here. 

Corporations like Airbnb have stepped up generously to provide housing, as have many families who have independently opened their homes. And thousands of ordinary Americans have given countless hours of their time to ensure that Afghans are welcomed well and fully integrated into the fabric of the United States.

But beyond the incalculable cost of lost human lives and the outpouring of voluntary support, the evacuation and resettlement effort also cost U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars, as critics of resettlement efforts are quick to point out. It’s worth noting that, 20 years out, the average adult refugee resettled to the U.S. has contributed about $21,000 more in taxes than the combined cost of governmental expenditures on their behalf, so this resettlement effort could actually be in the U.S.’s economic interests long-term. Still, there are significant short-term costs.

After such significant sacrifices, we still have a responsibility to these Afghans. We cannot relegate them to the realm of politics, statistics or economic uncertainty. Their fate hangs in the balance, and it’s vital that Congress finish the job. 

You see, while headlines reference Afghan “refugees,” technically, the roughly 70,000 Afghans resettled in the past several months did not come through the traditional refugee resettlement program. 

While they are lawfully present, authorized to work and qualify for some governmental assistance, their status as “parolees” never gives them the right to apply for lawful permanent resident status or citizenship. While those formally resettled as refugees are required to apply for this status one year after arrival — which allows them to apply for naturalization four years later — many Afghans are stuck in what could be a perpetual “temporary” status.

About 40 percent of Afghan parolees may eventually qualify for permanent status if approved for special immigrant visas, which are designated for some individuals who supported the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. But the bureaucratic hoops necessary to be approved for these visas have led to significant backlogs — several years in many cases, despite a legal requirement that they generally be processed within nine months. That’s partly why so many Afghan allies were still in Afghanistan when Kabul fell in the first place. And many others, including some family members of those who served the U.S. military, will never qualify for special immigrant visas.

Others might seek asylum. But while it may seem obvious that these Afghans have the requisite “well-founded fear of persecution” necessary to win an asylum case, many lack the specific documentary evidence of their credible fear. Some literally burned that evidence to get past the Taliban and to the airport to be evacuated. 

Fortunately, there’s a clear solution: Congress should pass an Afghan Adjustment Act. Treat Afghan parolees the same as resettled refugees. Allow them to apply for Lawful Permanent Resident status one year after arrival. A diverse coalition — national security leadersveteransevangelical Christians, the Catholic Church and many others — has called for legislation along these lines, but despite bipartisan negotiations reportedly being underway, no bill has been introduced.

Some legislators have expressed reservations about the Afghan Adjustment Act because they are not convinced that Afghan parolees have been adequately screened. But that’s actually a reason to support the Afghan Adjustment Act: The application for permanent residence could include additional vetting steps for Afghans, including in-person interviews with an officer of the Department of Homeland Security. 

Some Republicans have said that Biden botched this evacuation, and argue that Congress passing an Afghan Adjustment Act would just reward his failures. The Biden administration did make dramatic errors in the evacuation, particularly in failing to heed the pleas of veterans, national security and faith groups to execute an orderly evacuation of U.S. allies before withdrawing most U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Many vulnerable Afghan allies were left behind. 

But to hold these 70,000 Afghans hostage to political calculations is not just unethical; it also is unworthy of the sacrifices made in the process of the evacuation. 

Congress must honor the sacrifice of these 13 service members, the sacrifices the Afghans have made on our behalf and the sacrifices Americans have made to welcome them here in America. We must not forget them, even as new global crises emerge. It’s time for Congress to pass a bipartisan Afghan Adjustment Act.

Matthew Soerens is the U.S. director of church mobilization and advocacy for World Relief. 

Tags Afghan Americans Afghanistan conflict Afghanistan–United States relations Joe Biden Special Immigrant Visa Taliban Third country resettlement War in Afghanistan

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