May 25, 2022
Nine months after the August 2021 emergency evacuation from Afghanistan, many Afghan refugees are just now entering communities as the US begins a new phase of the resettlement process. Amidst a patchwork of sparse legal and social service resources, newly-arrived children and families must navigate this transition without a clear and direct pathway to citizenship. In AAFSC’s newest position paper, we assess the nuanced challenges facing Afghan newcomers and social service organizations like ours supporting their resettlement. The urgent need for legislative reform is clear, and passing the Afghan Adjustment Act is an important first step to securing long-term safety and stability for the tens of thousands of refugees impacted by this crisis. Read more about AAFSC’s work in this area and our critical legislative and systemic recommendations, below.
The Arab-American Family Support Center (AAFSC) is a non-profit, non-sectarian organization established in 1994 to provide culturally and linguistically competent, trauma-informed social services to low-income immigrants and refugees. We are deeply troubled by the ongoing humanitarian crisis devastating the people of Afghanistan and the precarious and uncertain future of Afghan refugees newly settling in the United States. As an organization uniquely equipped to support Afghan refugees as they find their new homes in the New York City region, we have been actively monitoring and responding to this evolving crisis.
According to the United Nations, an estimated 667,900 Afghans have been displaced inside the country since August 2021, when the US’s sudden withdrawal and the Taliban’s subsequent August 2021 takeover triggered a severe humanitarian crisis . Battling the confluence of over 40 years of violent conflict, food insecurity, and the COVID-19 pandemic, displaced Afghans face acute needs for shelter, food, water, health services, employment, cash assistance, and legal support. Following the withdrawal of US troops, more than 68,000 Afghan evacuees have arrived in the United States where they face a new set of challenges securing the resources to build a new life . Over the past several months, AAFSC has gathered insights on the refugee resettlement process and infrastructure for Afghan newcomers, both nationally and locally, and has identified recommendations for structural enhancements to the resettlement process and the need for and benefits of robust legal pathways for Afghan newcomers. In this position paper, we examine the current landscape for Afghan refugees who have spent the past nine months navigating their transition to the US as well as the agencies and community-based organizations that seek to support their transition. We hope that this deep dive will provide an enhanced understanding of the nuanced challenges and offer tangible policy and infrastructure recommendations for use by policymakers, stakeholders, and supporters.
In August 2021, to ensure expeditious relocation, the United States government admitted Afghan migrants fleeing from the urgent humanitarian crisis through humanitarian parole, a temporary status usually sought by individuals entering the United States for medical or other emergencies . For those navigating the labyrinthine relocation process, the particularities of this designation are central to the precarious experience of both evacuees and the agencies/organizations supporting their resettlement. Humanitarian Parole status allows individuals to temporarily remain in the U.S. but does not provide a guaranteed path to lawful permanent residence or eventual citizenship. Parolees are eligible for short-term resources through the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) such as cash assistance, medical assistance, and English language support, which are available for eight months after they become eligible. They may also be eligible for federal assistance benefits such as SNAP, WIC, TANF, Medicaid, and SSI; though their eligibility is contingent upon their parolee status, which lasts only two years .
In March 2021, the Biden Administration’s Department of Homeland Security, in an effort to address the fragility of this status, designated Afghanistan among the list of countries covered under Temporary Protected Status (TPS). TPS applies to migrants who would face extreme hardship if forced to return to their country of origin due to manmade or natural disasters. Afghan newcomers may be eligible for TPS if they do not secure legal status before their two-year parole period expires. Under the Biden Administration’s policy, TPS designation will be in place for 18 months . While this policy provides a stopgap for Afghan newcomers bracing for an uncertain future, TPS still only provides temporary protection from deportation and eligibility for a work permit . For many Afghans, TPS makes little difference, expiring around the same time as humanitarian parole and without a waiver. With additional complexities involved in TPS processing and status adjustment, the U.S. Customs and Immigration Services estimates that a family of five with two working adults can expect to pay up to $1,200 in fees . In effect, the result of the Biden administration’s TPS designation is largely symbolic and does not provide new or more favorable avenues for the future of Afghan newcomers and their legal status.
Under current circumstances, over 36,000 Afghan refugees lack a clear path to citizenship, according to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) . At this time, the only option for Afghan newcomers pursuing a more permanent and secure legal status to remain in the United States is through the US asylum system. Facing an existing backlog of nearly two million cases, the asylum system is already overburdened. Further, in response to refugee cap reductions made by previous administrations, the Biden’s DHS is in the midst of scaling its operations to accommodate a 730% increase in the number of refugees allowed in the US over the past two years. While this increase to the refugee cap is a step in the right direction for individuals seeking this status, reports indicate that bureaucratic operations are not yet robust enough to effectively handle the increased caseload . Were all eligible Afghan refugees to pursue the burdensome asylum process, these conditions would only be exacerbated, creating ripple effects throughout the immigration legal system.
Whether it be through humanitarian parole, TPS, or the asylum system, Afghan refugees, many of them unaccompanied minors escaping dangerous circumstances, are expected to navigate the U.S’s onerous and complex legal system without adequately available legal resources to support them through this process. According to Law 360, significant gaps exist in the legal landscape with experience filing Special Immigrant Visas, humanitarian parole, or asylum applications . In AAFSC’s experience, the supply of free legal support delivered with adequate linguistic and cultural competency to effectively communicate with and advocate for Afghan clients, is scarcer still. In the absence of truly accessible legal support, many Afghan refugees must navigate their uncertain legal future (for which there is no roadmap) with a loose patchwork of legal resources that often fail to anticipate and account for their cultural context, law enforcement hesitancies, migration and war-related traumas and their potential presentations, literacy barriers, and linguistic needs.
In the wake of war, trauma, migration, and hardship, Afghan refugees are positioned in a highly precarious and uncertain landscape as they near the end of their rapidly-approaching temporary status with inadequate linguistic and culturally competent support to guide them through their legal journeys. All the while, the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan places separated family members in danger and makes returning to their home country an untenable option. Given this confluence of factors, it is clear that a direct and accessible pathway to permanent status for Afghan newcomers is urgently needed.
At this point, refugees who arrived last summer are entering a new phase of their relocation journey. U.S. Safe Haven facilities, temporary housing facilities where refugees had been residing, were closed in February of 2022, meaning many refugees are just now beginning the long-term resettlement process . Reports indicate that thousands of Afghan refugees are still living in hotels as a temporary measure . As resettlement agencies report, about five months in, the Afghan refugee resettlement process is still in the initial welcoming phase as evacuees arriving from military bases are just now entering communities within the United States . The long-term success of the Afghan arrivals will hinge on successful long-term employment, healthcare, housing, and more – and the adjustment process can take years.
For those entering communities, the principal challenge is accessing basic resources and navigating the complex American systems that deliver them. Under humanitarian parole, the Office of Refugee Resettlement provides a range of short-term aid, along with temporary shelter while refugees move through the resettlement process. However, once resettled, refugees face an uphill battle securing and maintaining long-term housing . DHS provides refugees with a minimal resettlement stipend; however, in regions like the New York City metro area – which are already grappling with a housing affordability crisis – refugees will require enhanced support to remain safely housed in the long-run. Furthermore, refugees face unique barriers accessing housing due to lack of credit and proper documentation which many were reportedly advised to destroy for safety purposes at points during the evacuation process. AAFSC’s Housing Needs Assessment found that, due to these and similar housing barriers faced by immigrant families in New York, 25% of survey respondents were residing in dwellings where they did not have a formal lease, leaving them vulnerable to eviction and chronic housing insecurity .
Furthermore, refugee resettlement agencies are reporting a dire need for culturally responsive and linguistically accessible health and mental health services to address the immediate physical, psychological, and emotional impact of evacuation . The need for mental health support, in particular, is pressing as refugees grapple with the trauma of experiencing war and violence, hazardous migration journeys, and the loss or separation from close relatives. These circumstances are further exacerbated by existing and ongoing Islamophobia and xenophobia, which are systemic and widespread, yet often go unreported. While polls indicate that most Americans favor a pathway to permanent status, across the nation, reports of anti-Afghan acts of hate underscore the threat of these elements to families as they endure the ongoing stress of migration and navigate an uncertain future in the US . Meanwhile, AAFSC has found, through our extensive work enhancing access to mental health services, that mainstream service providers are often unequipped to navigate cultural stigmas and sensitivities around mental health which impair the efficacy of services to address the immediate mental health impact of relocation and the long-term ramifications of trauma, racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, and acculturative stress.
The disjoined array of short-term relief, combined with a scarcity of culturally/linguistically accessible services to support Afghan refugees presents an urgent need for a coordinated response to enhance the availability and accessibility of government and community-based services that can support refugees overcome these challenges and create successful paths to healing, health, security, and fulfillment.
As an organization intimately familiar with the nexus of challenges facing New York City’s Arab, Middle Eastern, North African, Muslim, and South Asian immigrant and refugee populations, the Arab-American Family Support Center has been actively monitoring and responding to this crisis. Over the past ten months, AAFSC has pivoted to extend and enhance our suite of wrap-around, culturally and linguistically competent services to ensure Afghan newcomers are fully supported as they settle in New York City. Addressing the compounding and intersecting challenges facing refugee families, AAFSC has delivered direct legal services, mental health counseling, domestic and gender-based violence case management support, academic and social-emotional support for youth, and benefit navigation and enrollment assistance. Our network of nearly 150 Afghan clients is rapidly growing as more refugees enter this new phase of relocation. Additionally, we have been distributing direct financial relief for medical costs, food, rent, and transportation, filling gaps in government aid and serving as a lifeline to families who are transitioning out of their short-term ORR benefits.
As the nuances of this crisis come more clearly into view, AAFSC has been crafting a holistic and multi-faceted strategy that addresses pain-points throughout the refugee relocation system. We have found that it is difficult to reach Afghan refugees in need, as many of them have not been connected to a central care network upon arrival. Additionally, given the limited infrastructure on the part of public agencies facilitating refugee entry and connecting refugees with services, AAFSC has found that word-of-mouth and community connections are the most critical ways to reach and support Afghan refugees. In response, AAFSC crafted and is carrying out an extensive outreach campaign, involving partnership networking, community organizing and tabling, and digital media outreach. We are also working to equip resettlement agencies with the cultural competency to recognize and navigate the nuanced needs of Afghan people and confidently direct them to the complementary, culturally and linguistically accessible, community-based services available, including those provided by AAFSC. While tireless efforts are undertaken by a network of service providers and community organizers, there is a palpable sense of urgency given the impending expiration of temporary status and the consequential need to balance basic social services with legal support and advocacy. A permanent pathway to citizenship alleviates the workload for both refugees and the service providers supporting them, who continue to conduct the long-term work of resettlement by prioritizing health, stability, and well-being.
Recommendation 1: We urge Congress to immediately provide a clear, direct, and accessible pathway to lawful permanent residency for Afghan refugees by passing the Afghan Adjustment Act (AAA). As the most comprehensive legislative solution currently proposed, the AAA allows certain Afghan refugees to apply for permanent status after one year of being paroled. By doing so, Congress would secure the safety and security of tens of thousands of Afghan refugees who are currently at risk of losing access to employment, healthcare, and their legal right to reside in the US upon expiration of their parolee (and, if attained, TPS) status.
By passing the AAA, Congress would be sidestepping a potential bureaucratic catastrophe, resulting when Afghan refugees have no choice but to pursue the intensive and complex asylum system, leaving these government agencies even further backlogged and creating uncertainty for tens of thousands of Afghan refugees.
Furthermore, enabling a path to permanent status would make it easier for Afghan refugees separated from close family members to reunite in the United States. The chaos and urgency of the August 2021 evacuation further exacerbated the displacement crisis in Afghanistan leading many to flee suddenly, leaving behind spouses, parents, and even children . Those who were not a part of the initial emergency evacuation out of Afghanistan have little chance of migrating to the US safely through existing humanitarian parole process, as indicated by the extremely high rates of denial for Afghans applying currently . While displaced Afghans who remain in the country continue to endure an urgent humanitarian crisis, this legislation provides a potential path to family reunification and successful evacuation for additional endangered Afghans.
Although the nature and severity of this crisis is remarkable, the legislative response proposed by the Afghan Adjustment Act is not unprecedented. Congress has passed legislation to accommodate Vietnamese, Cuban, and Iraqi refugees impacted by the fallout of US-involved conflicts or humanitarian crises and must similarly recognize and acknowledge the role of US intervention in the resulting crisis impacting Afghan people.
While AAFSC advocates for passage of the Afghan Adjustment Act, we strongly advise that considerations be made by US agencies presiding over its implementation, to avoid and alleviate undue administrative burden taken on by refugees, curtail excessive surveillance, and mitigate instances of bias in the legal processes carried out as part of the status change application processes. Recognizing the immense hurdles Afghan refugees have already been required to overcome, AAFSC advocates for long overdue reform to immigration proceedings that accounts for the cultural and linguistic backgrounds of those navigating these complex systems.
Recommendation 2: Designate funding for legal service organizations to support Afghan refugees understand and successfully navigate the legal options available to them, with particular emphasis on funding capacity building for organizations embedded within immigrant communities that hold linguistic and cultural competency to support Afghan refugees. According to the National Immigration Forum, the government has not currently targeted funding for people processing Special Visa Applications, even while recognizing the need for staff to expedite these processes .
Recommendation 3: Strengthen collaboration between resettlement agencies and community-based organizations offering long-term intensive social services to ensure Afghan refugees can navigate their relocation journeys successfully and access the benefits needed to acclimate to their new communities and begin their path towards long term healing. AAFSC proudly partners with local resettlement agencies and is actively paving the way for efficient and effective collaboration and referrals, while welcoming additional opportunities to do so.
The Arab-American Family Support Center (AAFSC) is a non-profit, non-sectarian organization that provides culturally and linguistically competent, trauma-informed social services to low-income immigrants and refugees in New York City and beyond. AAFSC initiatives operate across four priority areas – promote, prevent, get ready, and communicate – to strengthen families and communities. We promote mental and physical well-being, prevent gender-based violence and child abuse, provide the tools for learners of every age to succeed, and communicate community needs to partners and policymakers. AAFSC’s theory of change identifies the family as a key focal point, so we offer integrated, holistic services across generations and at all stages of the immigration journey to encourage healthy paths to success and fulfillment. While our doors are open to all, over 27 years, we have developed expertise serving low-income Arab, Middle Eastern, North African, Muslim, and South Asian (AMENAMSA) populations. Our staff speak 36 languages, including Arabic, Bengali, Farsi, Hindi, Nepali, Punjabi, Urdu, Wakhi, Pashto and Dari (spoken in Afghanistan).
First established in Brooklyn, we now operate out of 13 physical locations and within families’ homes across NYC. In addition to offices in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, AAFSC co-locates at the NYC Family Justice Centers in all 5 boroughs, Khalil Gibran International Academy, PS 139 in Brooklyn, and Maimonides Medical Center.
 https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements releases/2021/05/03/statement-by-president-joe-biden-on-refugee-admissions/