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Afghan refugees face daunting struggles inside and outside the U.S.—02-04-22
Immigration news, in context
This is the 111th edition of BORDER/LINES, a weekly newsletter by Felipe De La Hoz and Gaby Del Valle designed to get you up to speed on the big developments in immigration policy. Reach out with feedback, suggestions, tips, and ideas at BorderLines.News@protonmail.ch.
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This week’s edition:
In The Big Picture, we discuss the various legal and practical difficulties for Afghan refugees both awaiting a chance to reach the U.S., and those who already have.
In Under the Radar, we examine the new practice of using Title 42 to expel Venezuelan asylum seekers to Colombia.
In Next Destination, we look at the coming expansion of a private ICE detention center in Georgia.
The Big Picture
The news: As the last Afghan refugees who made it into the United States leave the military bases where they were originally housed, plenty of legal and practical uncertainty remains for both them and would-be refugees abroad.
There are a couple of categories of Afghans with distinct issues, the first of which are the folks who never made it onto U.S. evacuation planes and are stuck abroad. Some of them have made it to third countries like Iran and Qatar, others have stayed in Afghanistan, unable or unwilling to risk the trek out. Iran itself has begun mass deportations of Afghan refugees, sending tens of thousands back to the country. A good number of Afghans will probably seek to remain in Qatar, but thousands wanted to resettle in the United States, particularly if they’d been in any way involved with the occupation.
As we discussed at length late last year, with Special Immigrant Visas being processed glacially and the refugee program collapsing as U.S. diplomats and consular offices were themselves forced to flee, the Biden administration turned to humanitarian parole, a discretionary and temporary designation designed to allow people to enter the U.S. based on compelling humanitarian need. Ultimately, over 35,000 Afghans submitted these parole applications, hoping to be approved to travel to the U.S. to begin their lives anew. These hopes started getting dashed on the rocks last year as denials began coming back, citing reasons including a need for individualized threat or danger against the applicants personally, a substantially higher bar than the group-based determinations available to people in the refugee or asylum processes (which themselves are far from sure shots). The sting was heightened by the fact that each application came with a $575 fee.
These fears now seem increasingly realized as attorneys anecdotally report near-uniform denials. On January 20, a group of fifteen senators including Majority Leader Chuck Schumer sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Ali Mayorkas citing concern over “troubling reports that USCIS will not grant humanitarian parole to Afghans who might also be eligible for refugee status, and that the agency is applying unrealistic requirements, such as that applicants provide documentation from a third-party source specifically naming the applicant and outlining the harms they face.”
The senators asked Mayorkas to give them the denial and acceptance rates for the applications, and to explain why the administration was “applying a narrow and restrictive standard for Afghan nationals seeking humanitarian parole instead of using the expansive authority granted to the Secretary to meet the unprecedented needs.” It’s not certain that this will fundamentally shift anything, but at least Mayorkas is forced to respond to U.S. senators in a way that he isn’t necessarily made to contend with advocates or immigration attorneys.
In theory, the administration could reverse every denial at the drop of a hat; again, it’s a completely discretionary program. There is, however, continued political pressure coming from the other side as well, particularly arising out of the silly claim that the refugees are unvetted or uniformly dangerous, a claim for which there is no evidence. Even if Mayorkas wanted to turn on a dime and issue parole to all 35,000 Afghan applicants, that only really solves one problem. Once they actually arrived in the United States, a whole series of separate problems would arise.
Which brings us to the second category, the Afghans who did make it into the U.S. In sum, about 76,000 evacuees arrived in the U.S. in the post-withdrawal period. Of these, a small minority—a bit over 6,000—already had some form of legal status, whether residency or an approved Special Immigrant Visa, reserved for people who had provided some material assistance to the U.S. war effort and their families. According to an internal Homeland Security report first obtained and described by CBS News’ Camilo Montoya-Galvez, about half of the remaining evacuees could qualify for a SIV, or are in the pipeline. That leaves over 36,000 Afghans with approved parole, almost all of whom are in the U.S., but no cognizable path to permanent residency. Parole was never designed to be used as a generalized or long-term program, and has no avenue into a more permanent status.
In response, activists have been pushing Congress to pass a legal framework known as the Afghan Adjustment Act, which would broadly permit Afghan parolees to apply for legal residency after some period of time in the U.S. To date, these efforts have gone nowhere, and it’s hard to envision Congress acting on this when it’s failed to act even narrowly on allowing the parents of children separated under the infamous zero tolerance policy to remain permanently in the country. In the meantime, these parolees are in a renewable but flimsy legal status, a limbo from which the only escape are alternate paths to residency, like filing affirmative asylum applications. That’s what the administration has been encouraging them to do, a far from perfect solution given the backlog of over 400,000 such applications pending with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the procedural hurdles of a successful application.
For those with permanent and nonpermanent statuses alike, the integration into U.S. society has been rocky. The refugee resettlement system, which is structured as a public-private partnership where the government collaborates closely with nonprofit providers to figure out resettlement locations and provide initial services, was kneecapped under the Trump administration, with its precipitous drop in resettlements and lack of support. Thousands of refugees remain in U.S. military bases months after their arrival. In places like Baltimore, newly resettled refugees are finding it difficult to get assistance in navigating the basics of U.S. life, like getting health insurance and identity documents.
They are ultimately facing the same challenges as most other people in this country—a lack of affordable housing, a byzantine and nonsensical healthcare system, convoluted tax and legal frameworks, low wages—but all without a longtime experience of doing so, and with all the additional challenges of having had to uproot your entire life under the prospect of death from your country’s new government. It wasn’t only a question of the ability to bring people stateside (which the U.S. abjectly failed at) but also the ability to actually integrate them (at which it is also failing).
How we got here
The refugee resettlement process is notoriously slow and bureaucratic. Before it was systematized by the Refugee Act of 1980, it was far more ad hoc and arbitrary. Today, refugees have to apply for resettlement from outside the U.S., unlike asylum seekers. Refugees who are referred for resettlement via the UNHCR typically don’t have a say in which country they end up in; it could be the U.S., Germany, Canada, or elsewhere. Roughly 6 million people—about one-fifth of the world’s total refugee population—live in refugee camps awaiting resettlement, according to UNHCR, often for years.
Resettlement isn’t an instant thing; a refugee who is resettled in the U.S. must not only wait to be granted refugee status but must also contend with a massive backlog. By the time a refugee ends up in the U.S., they have already undergone extensive vetting and typically years of waiting. The Trump administration made the resettlement process even more difficult and prolonged by lowering the refugee admissions cap each year Trump was in office. A lower refugee resettlement ceiling means that fewer people are admitted into the U.S. each year, meaning the backlog for those who have already been approved and are awaiting resettlement grows even longer.
When Biden took office, the refugee resettlement cap was 15,000—an all-time low. Biden initially refused to raise the ceiling, citing the rise in asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border, even though the refugee and asylum processes are adjudicated differently and handled by entirely separate government agencies. In May of 2021, Biden raised the refugee resettlement ceiling for fiscal 2021 to 62,500. By that point, it was already too late. The fiscal year ends on September 30, meaning there wasn’t enough time to resettle that many refugees by its end, especially since the Trump administration’s evisceration of the process left many resettlement agencies under-resourced. Ultimately, only 11,411 refugees were admitted into the U.S. during fiscal 2021.
The glacial pace of the resettlement process was, perhaps obviously, not suited to the urgency of Afghan evacuations after the Taliban took Kabul. The Biden administration more or less botched the evacuations, with officials saying they hadn’t expected Kabul to fall so quickly. The refugees who fled Afghanistan had no way of going through the typical resettlement process. Instead, as we noted above, most were paroled into the U.S. and were required to apply for other forms of status.
About 6,000 of those who made it to the U.S. had some form of legal status. Some were recipients of Special Immigrant Visas, a designation created specifically to aid foreign nationals who helped the U.S. war efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Congress created the SIV program in 2008 and specifically gave the State Department the authority to issue such visas to Afghans under the Afghan Allies Protection Act of 2009. To qualify, applicants must be able to prove that they worked for or on the behalf of the U.S. government in Afghanistan, including as a contractor, and that they’ve experienced threats as a result of their employment. (A similar program for Iraqi nationals has existed since 2008.)
Again, these avenues for resettlement in the U.S. require something many of the Afghan refugees didn’t have: time. While many can now file applications from within the U.S., they have more or less had to undergo the entire process in reverse, and there’s always the possibility that those who apply for asylum or other forms or protection are denied and may be sent back to Afghanistan.
The closest historical analogue to the Afghan evacuation process is the airlifting of Vietnamese refugees during and after the Vietnam War. Those evacuations, though, were planned in advance—and notably, began before the fall of Saigon. Between April 1 and 19, 1975, around 5,000 people were evacuated each day. The U.S. was working to get Vietnamese refugees out, and Congress was also making efforts to ensure that they could be successfully resettled in the U.S. Congress passed the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act in May 1975. As our Felipe De La Hoz wrote for Slate, it was a bipartisan effort that resulted in the resettlement of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian refugees in the U.S. Resettlement wasn’t limited to those who had direct ties to the U.S. war effort, and the U.S. also admitted tens of thousands of refugees under humanitarian parole.
But the similarities end there. The resettlement of Vietnamese refugees after the war was by no means a perfect process, but it was handled far more competently than that of Afghan refugees today. There was a clear bipartisan desire to position the U.S. as a refuge from communism and a safe haven for its victims. In a different universe, there would be a similar desire among both Democrats and Republicans to take in Afghans fleeing the Taliban, especially after decades of the global War on Terror, but that clearly isn’t happening.
We don’t have clear overall data just yet on parole denials for Afghans outside the country, but the anecdotal data so far suggest that it’s a tsunami. If and when Mayorkas responds to the letter from the senators, we’ll have some additional clarity on the extent of the denials and, more importantly, if the administration intends to shift any of its approach so far or even consider reversing some of the denials issued under what is practically a unworkable standard. In one scenario, they hold the line and end up issuing almost all denials, in which case the door is, for now, completely closed. Some of these Afghans could still enter the standard refugee process, but that’s a years-long application that has its own set of obstacles.
In another scenario, the administration could reverse course and begin approving the parole applications and overturning prior denials, which ironically then massively worsens the second problem, that of the impermanence of that status and the difficulties with integrating Afghans into the U.S. There is, very plainly, no current legal way for parolees to obtain permanent status that doesn’t run through using one of the established, external avenues for regularization, i.e. family ties, eligible employment, or asylum. In a way, the fact that they possess a temporary status that provides protections from deportation and work authorization actually takes some of the pressure off and actually makes it less likely that Congress will feel overwhelming pressure to act immediately.
The current prospects for the Afghan Adjustment Act or some measure like it seem pretty dim, particularly prior to the midterms. Much of the political oxygen is being consumed by Biden and Senate Democrats’ continued efforts to reach some sort of Build Back Better structure that everyone (read: Joe Manchin) will actually vote for. Immigration and border hysteria are a potent tool for midterm agitation within the GOP, and there is absolutely no doubt that anything done for the benefit of Afghan refugees would get sucked into the narrative.
As far as the resettlement struggles, the trouble with the resettlement infrastructure is that it simply cannot be rebuilt overnight. Agencies are completely overwhelmed by a relatively sudden influx that dwarfed refugee admissions for the prior several years. They’re doing their best, but as some resettlement workers have told us, you can only do so much with goodwill and material donations. You need employees and trained volunteers who know how to assist refugees in navigating the systems of American life, and you don’t get that in a pinch.
Under the Radar
Biden administration expelling some Venezuelan migrants to Colombia
The number of Venezuelan migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border has increased dramatically over the past year, with more than 13,000 single adults from Venezuela being encountered at the border in December alone. The Biden administration has responded to the rise in Venezuelan asylum seekers by doubling down on Title 42 expulsions—not to Mexico, but to Colombia. The administration recently began flying Venezuelan migrants to Colombia if they had previously lived there, CNN’s Priscilla Alvarez reports.
This is not the first time migrants encountered at the southern border have been expelled somewhere other than Mexico. Expulsion flights to Haiti have been ongoing; nearly 5,000 Haitian migrants were sent back to their country of origin during a 10-day period last September. In August, immigration officials began expelling some Central American families to southern Mexico, near the border with Guatemala. The Mexican government immediately bussed those migrants to Guatemala. As with the more recent expulsions of Venezuelan migrants to Colombia, these long-distance expulsions—which are legally distinct from deportations, because they happen without an order from an immigration judge and are not entered into a legal record—are attempts at deterrence. The goal isn’t to get migrants out as quickly as possible, since flights require far more logistics and planning than sending someone back over the border immediately, but to prevent migrants from attempting to get back to the border by sending them as far from it as possible.
On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told CBS News’s Camilo Montoya-Galvez that the administration has decided to keep Title 42 in place. The agency is supposed to review the need for Title 42 every 60 days. Officials told CBS News that they decided to renew the order due to the omicron variant.
ICE facility in rural Georgia will nearly quadruple bed space
The Folkston ICE Processing Center in Georgia will soon become one of the largest immigrant detention facilities in the country, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports. Charlton County and the GEO Group—one of the largest private prison companies in the country, which operates Folkston—signed an agreement late last year that would nearly quadruple the facility’s capacity. Folkston currently has room for 780 detainees; under the new agreement, it would have room for 3,018 people.
The Journal-Constitution notes that it’s unclear whether ICE will send more detainees to Folkston even after the expansion, especially since the number of ICE detainees has fallen since Trump took office. To be clear, the number of people in ICE’s custody is trending upwards, even though it’s nowhere near the all-time highs reached under the Trump administration. The agreement to expand Folkston was between the county government and GEO—but it’s possible that the Biden administration is ramping up its detention capability to address the increase in migrants arriving at the border, even as it continues to expel them en masse.