From 2013 to 2021, the United States granted asylum to fewer than 1,000 Afghans in total.
The sharp rise in the number of Afghan asylum-seekers is directly linked to the evacuation by the U.S. military of more than 124,000 individuals, mostly Afghan nationals, from Kabul International Airport in August 2021.
After undergoing initial security and health screenings at U.S. military bases in Qatar, Germany and other countries, the Afghan evacuees subsequently entered the United States under a status known as humanitarian parole.
In May 2022, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which oversees USCIS, announced Temporary Protected Status registration for 72,500 Afghans, allowing them to work and live in the country until Nov. 20, 2023.
Last month, Homeland Security said it is extending the program until May 2025 to cover previous and newly eligible individuals.
“The extension and redesignation of Afghanistan for TPS allows an estimated 17,700 individuals to be granted TPS, if they apply for TPS and are found eligible. This includes approximately 3,100 existing beneficiaries currently receiving TPS benefits under Afghanistan’s previous designation, plus an estimated 14,600 newly potentially eligible individuals,” a USCIS spokesperson told VOA by email.
Congress has yet to approve the Afghan Adjustment Act, which would create legal pathways for Afghans who entered the United States in 2021 under humanitarian parole and are seeking permanent residence and naturalization.
“The administration has repeatedly put forward an adjustment act and publicly called on Congress to support a bipartisan adjustment act that would provide a durable, more streamlined immigration pathway for those currently in parole,” the spokesperson said.
While dozens of Democratic and Republican lawmakers have publicly supported the Afghan Adjustment Act, others have voiced concerns about poor security vetting of the individuals who were airlifted from Kabul amid a chaotic withdrawal operation.
Amid uncertainty about when and whether Congress will approve the legislation, Homeland Security has encouraged Afghans in temporary protected and parole statuses to apply for asylum, without offering assurances that their cases will be approved.
Critics say the U.S. asylum system is already overwhelmed with applications, and the addition of thousands of Afghan applicants will further strain it.
“Our immigration court system has a massive backlog [of] hundreds of thousands of cases, and many of which are asylum cases,” Laurence Benenson, vice president of policy and advocacy at the National Immigration Forum, told VOA. Benenson said adjudicating asylum cases takes up to five years.
Last year, 1,438 Afghans were granted asylum by the USCIS, a significant increase compared with 96 individuals in 2021 and only 37 in 2020.
In the rush to leave Afghanistan, some evacuees may have failed to take with them the appropriate documents to support their asylum petitions, which Benenson said “makes it much harder to pursue their claims.”
Three Afghan asylum-seekers interviewed for this story said their applications have been pending at USCIS for over a year.
“I don’t know how long we will remain in this limbo, but the uncertainty pains every day,” said Qais Ahmad, who left Kabul on a U.S. military flight in August 2021 and entered the U.S. in December 2021 with his wife and four children.
It is unclear how the Afghan Adjustment Act, if approved by Congress, would handle the thousands of Afghans with pending asylum cases.
“It remains to be seen, is the answer,” said Daniel Salazar, a policy analyst at the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.
“There are different groups of Afghan nationals who will be affected by the AAA in a variety of ways, but we won’t really know that until federal agencies are actively implementing it,” Salazar told VOA.
Until Congress enacts the Afghan Adjustment Act, the many thousands of Afghans who fall outside the requirements for a Special Immigration Visa — a program that facilitates easy and swift residence for individuals who worked for the U.S. military and programs in Iraq and Afghanistan — will have to undergo the lengthy and cumbersome asylum system.