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Biden offers protected status to Afghans already in US

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WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is allowing Afghans who reside in the United States to legally stay in the country for at least an additional 18 months, an attempt to offer them more stability because obtaining permanent residency could take years.

The benefit, known as Temporary Protected Status, will be extended to more than 74,000 Afghans who were living in the United States as of March 15, according to the Department of Homeland Security, which makes such designations. More immediately, it will affect about 2,000 Afghans who were not among those evacuated during the tumultuous withdrawal of the US military from their country last year. Each applicant must pass a background check.

The program does not provide a pathway to a green card or citizenship, which many advocates say is warranted for Afghans who were brought into the country after risking their lives to help US forces. Many served as combat interpreters, drivers and in other support roles during the two decades American troops fought in their country.

Most of the Afghans who were evacuated to the United States last year have already obtained another status, known as humanitarian parole, which allows them to stay for two years. But many have struggled to navigate an immigration system that US officials say was not ready to help them. The two-year humanitarian parole application process can be cumbersome for applicants, but Temporary Protected Status is frequently extended for countries designated by the Department of Homeland Security.

Wednesday’s designation appears to be an acknowledgment that it will take Afghan evacuees years to gain permanent residency through the obstructed US immigration system.

“Our nation’s moral obligation to our Afghan allies and friends demands the stability that only a pathway to permanent residency can provide,” Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, chairman of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, said Wednesday.

Supporters have been lobbying Congress to pass legislation, the Afghan Adjustment Act, that would offer Afghans in the United States a fast track to permanent residency and citizenship. Some have expressed concern that a temporary status designation, like the one released on Wednesday, would hurt the chances of the legislation passing.

“We are concerned that this designation announcement will be confused with an Afghan adjustment law, and people will feel that this is no longer necessary,” said Naomi Steinberg, vice president of policy and advocacy at HIAS. , a nonprofit organization that has helped Afghans resettle in the United States.

Of those already in the country, the Department of Homeland Security estimated that about 40% will be eligible for special immigrant visas because of their work for the United States in Afghanistan. These visas would eventually allow them to receive a green card and citizenship. However, the sudden arrival of a large number of evacuees created backlogs.

Temporary status is for people from countries that have experienced natural disasters or other emergencies, allowing them to live and work in the United States for a specified, often extended, period.

The designation announced on Wednesday does not address the plight of tens of thousands of Afghans – including human rights activists and professional women – who remain in their home country or in neighboring countries, fearing reprisals. of a Taliban government that sought out people who promoted democratic values ​​or aided the US military mission.

The Biden administration has faced a barrage of criticism over its handling of Afghan refugees; the designation for Afghanistan came only after the administration offered temporary protected status to Ukrainians who were already in the United States.

While advocates applauded the designation of Ukraine, which came on the same day Canada and the European Union made similar humanitarian gestures to help millions of Ukrainians last week, they wondered why the he Biden administration had not offered temporary status to people from other war-torn countries. , including Cameroon and Ethiopia.

Like many in the US immigration system, the Temporary Protected Status program faces its own backlog. According to US Citizenship and Immigration Services, which runs the program, it takes an average of six months to process applications. And even though the announcement for Afghans came on Wednesday, people can’t apply until the government publishes an official notice in the Federal Register, a process that can take weeks in some cases.

“Good policy is going to fall flat if it can’t be implemented in a way that allows people to benefit from it,” said Lisa Parisio, director of advocacy for Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc.

With Wednesday’s announcement, 13 countries now enjoy temporary protected status. At the end of September, there were nearly 300,000 pending applications.

More than 400,000 people currently participate in the program, including immigrants from El Salvador, Haiti, Sudan, Syria and Venezuela. Protection is granted for six to 18 months, and the Department of Homeland Security must extend a country’s designation on a recurring basis. Each time a country is recertified, recipients reapply and pass a security check.

Groups pro-limiting immigration have criticized the program, in effect since 1990, for essentially allowing people to stay permanently in the United States. Indeed, many of them have been here for decades.

Thousands of Afghans have applied for and been denied entry to the United States through humanitarian parole. This status is intended to allow people facing emergency situations to be admitted to the country quickly and without a visa, which can take months or years to obtain. Thousands of other claimants are still awaiting the outcome of their cases while living in danger, according to the lawyers representing them.

The Afghans airlifted during the withdrawal spent several months on US military bases before being released to communities across the country, where many of them are staying in hotels as nonprofits under contract with the government, such as the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, HIAS and the International Rescue Committee, to try to find them accommodation.