The harrowing sights of the chaotic flights from Bagram Airforce Base in Kabul Afghanistan a year ago remain in our minds to this day. Throngs of distressed women, children, and men sought safety and refuge at the airport, many fearful for their lives after having worked side by side with Americans for a decade. That work put their lives at risk as the Taliban took power. More than 76,000 people were paroled into the United States between July and August 31, 2021, when the last American troops left. Given this one-year anniversary, we revisit the year that has passed and what the year to come may hold.
The three of us know intimately what the chaos has wrought. We have led the work of the AILA Afghan Taskforce, which engaged thousands of volunteers who jumped in to help Afghan evacuees. We have visited military bases, counseled volunteer attorneys, and held the hands of terrified evacuees.
Afghan nationals have ended up in three very different situations. Many were paroled into the U.S., provided refuge on eight military bases under the Operation Allies Welcome program. This initiative, one of the most crucial U.S. resettlement efforts since the 1975 parole and later grant of permanent residence to 125,000 Vietnamese, granted Afghans “humanitarian parole” for a two-year period. The enormity of the operations on the military bases was impressive, including health screenings and vaccinations, painstaking security vetting, and the issuance of over 71,000 Employment Authorization Documents (EADs). After the rigorous process at the military bases, the parolees were assigned to resettlement agencies that are responsible for helping them attain the basic necessities including — housing, health care, and assistance with job searches. The strain on resettlement agencies and legal service providers has been overwhelming due to lack of funding and staffing which occurred under the Trump Administration. However, communities are coming together to help support their Afghan neighbors through organized groups like the Giving Circles or more informal neighborly help from mosques and other religious-based organizations.
But others fell into two other, far more uncertain situations: stuck in limbo in other countries waiting to be processed to the U.S., or, worse yet, left in Afghanistan and often hiding from threats of harm or death.
Even those safely paroled into the United States face daunting challenges. They are looking for a way to obtain permanent residence (a green card) but also trying to figure out how to help their loved ones left behind in Afghanistan. For example, many hundreds of pilots and support crew escaped Afghanistan with important military planes and helicopters so they would not fall into the hands of the Taliban. They left behind wives and children who now live under grave danger as the Taliban search for those who collaborated with Americans and their family members. These brave men and women are desperate to be united with their family but despite a year passing, there is no coordinated effort or viable means to do so.
One bright spot is the recent introduction of the Afghan Adjustment Act (AAA), which has been sponsored in both chambers of Congress by bipartisan groups of lawmakers. The AAA would provide permanent residency to Afghan parolees and enable them to eventually apply for U.S. citizenship. This vital legislation is needed as it offers much stability to the evacuees who have been in legal limbo since their arrival in the United States. Without this legislation, it is unclear how Afghan parolees will be able to remain in the United States once their parole expires. Congress has indeed passed similar legislation as a result of humanitarian crises in the past, such as the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, the Indochina Migration & Refugee Act of 1975, the Indochinese Parole Adjustment Act of 2000, and the 1998 Iraqi Adjustment Act. The AAA is supported by many, including veterans, national security specialists, the Afghan community, and immigration advocates, who know it will take years for their colleagues to rebuild their lives. We must all work towards its enactment and implementation, in order to keep our promise to our Afghan allies and to honor the sacrifices made by them in support of democracy and freedom.
As we mark the one-year anniversary of the U.S. departure from Kabul, we can be proud of the monumental efforts that have been taken by thousands of Americans to support Afghans, but clearly, there is much more to be done. Our allies who have been left behind, those who have supported the U.S. mission, and those who had to leave loved ones behind, need to be offered a safe pathway out of Afghanistan. Further, we urge you to Take Action and tell Congress that those who made it to the U.S. need stability through the prompt passage of the Afghan Adjustment Act.