US changes focus to long-term residency for more Afghans

·3 min read

SAN DIEGO (AP) — The Biden administration said Thursday that it is phasing out a program that aimed to give at-risk Afghans a quicker pathway to the U.S. through humanitarian relief but was criticized for its bureaucratic barriers and for ultimately leaving people's lives in legal limbo.

Instead, starting Oct. 1, the U.S. government said it would focus on beefing up efforts to help more Afghans get permanent U.S. residency rather than the temporary legal status of humanitarian parole, which allowed them to stay in the country for just two years.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the administration is adopting a “new model" for Afghans traveling “directly to the communities where they will be moving” instead of having a stopover elsewhere in the country, which was required to get humanitarian parole.

“This is important to us. This has been a priority. And that’s how we’re going to make the process work a little bit better," she said.

Since the chaotic evacuation of Afghans following the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in August 2021, some 86,000 Afghans have arrived in the United States — nearly all through the humanitarian parole process, which has left their future uncertain.

Thousands more remain in Afghanistan and their lives are at risk for aiding American troops. Some have been killed, advocates say.

Others have made their way to neighboring Pakistan but have been stalled by the backlog to process special immigrant visas for Afghans who supported the U.S. government during the war there. Nearly 75,000 such visas are still in the pipeline.

Humanitarian parole was intended originally to be a fast-track way to pull out Afghans who were unable to leave during the evacuation by the U.S. military a year ago. But it has fallen short, advocates said. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services struggled to keep up with the surge in applicants and address the growing backlog.

Since July 2021, the U.S. government has received nearly 50,000 humanitarian parole requests. But the agency has adjudicated fewer than 10,000, denying approximately 95% of them.

“Far too many of our allies remain in harm’s way, and far too many families remain separated by bureaucratic hurdles," Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, the head of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a refugee resettlement agency, said in a statement.

Jean-Pierre said the government is working on making things faster so Afghans left behind can get out soon.

“We know that many of our allies and Afghans remain under threat in the country," she said.

Under the new model, dubbed “Operation Enduring Welcome," Afghans must have immediate family members in the U.S. or have worked for the U.S. government in Afghanistan or be identified as being among the most vulnerable applicants to the U.S. refugee program.

The administration said providing more Afghans with permanent residency will make it easier for them to restart their lives in the United States and participate in their new communities.

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Associated Press writer Chris Megerian in Washington contributed to this report.

Julie Watson, The Associated Press