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Almost Two Years Since Kabul Fell, a Frayed Refugee System Creates Obstacles for Afghans in Texas

In the summer of 2021, Azita Jawady and Hamid Sadra were a young, married couple in love, living in Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan, and expecting their first child. They felt good about their future and their country. Despite decades of war, Afghanistan seemed to be moving in a positive direction.

At least in urban areas, women could attend school and university, enter the workforce and participate in public life. Jawady believed this was a lasting transformation since the end of the first Taliban regime in 2001.

“For 20 [years] we tried to make a good Afghanistan,” Jawady said. “We were an open-minded people. We go to restaurant, we work with men. We never thought that Afghanistan fall downs again.”

But on Aug. 15, 2021, their lives changed in an instant. Two weeks before the U.S. military ended its 20-year presence in Afghanistan, the Taliban took control of Kabul and the country. Jawady, Sadra and many others didn’t expect it to happen so quickly — if at all.

Tens of thousands of Afghans who had worked for the U.S. government or other Western entities were now at risk. That included Jawady, who was a social worker for the U.S. Agency for International Development, and Sadra, who worked for ArtLords, an Afghan artist-activist group that had done work for the U.S. Embassy and painted murals with themes of peace, health and human rights on the blast walls that protected buildings from bombs across Afghanistan — themes that conflicted with the Taliban’s stringent rules against behavior considered un-Islamic.

Even speaking English was dangerous. A Taliban fighter at a security checkpoint once asked Sadra, in English, what his job was, and Sadra pretended not to understand. He felt he was being tested.

“I really was scared, and all of my body was shaking. I didn’t say anything,” he said.

They feared for their lives, and for the life of their unborn son, and fled the country on Dec. 1, 2021, on a flight arranged by nongovernmental organizations including Sadra’s employer. After staying at a military base for a month in Qatar — where Jawady was treated for Bell’s palsy, a partial facial paralysis, usually temporary, that she thinks was triggered by stress — they were sent to a U.S. Army base in New Jersey, then to Green Bay, Wisconsin, and finally arrived in Austin in February 2022.

More than 97,000 Afghans have come to the United States since the Afghan government collapsed in 2021, according to a U.S. State Department spokesperson. Federal data indicates at least 3,800 Afghans came to Texas as refugees or with special immigrant visas during that time.

Since fiscal year 2010, at least 17,000 Afghan refugees and those with special immigrant visas have arrived in Texas. Only California surpasses it, with at least 40,000 Afghans arriving during that time.

Texas has long been one of the top states for refugee resettlement in the country. Almost 220,000 refugees arrived in the state between 1980, when the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program began, and 2018, according to research conducted by Germany’s Georg-August-Universität-Göttingen and the University of Western Australia.

Most recent Afghan refugees are here through humanitarian parole, which allows people facing an urgent humanitarian crisis permission to stay in the United States for a short time. They don’t receive visas or permanent residency — better known as green cards — but they are eligible for public benefits and can apply for temporary work permits.

Afghan parolees now have up to four years to either figure out a way to stay in the country for good or leave when their parole expires. Their best option for eventually getting a green card is the so-called Afghan Special Immigrant Visa. Afghans who worked for the U.S. government in Afghanistan for at least one year are eligible, as are their spouses and children. Many SIV applicants worked as interpreters for the U.S. military.

In 2021, the Department of Homeland Security estimated that more than 40% of Afghan parolees were eligible for SIVs because of their previous work with the U.S. government. But what should be a minimum nine-month visa process is currently taking at least 10 months to navigate, and has climbed to as much as 33 months in recent years.

The State Department has historically been slow to process SIVs, but it became a crisis when thousands of Afghans eligible for those visas arrived in the United States after the fall of Kabul. The State Department was understaffed and reported receiving “hundreds of thousands of emails” between August 2021 and October 2021. It took at least a year to clear the backlog of inquiries.

Afghan refugee Azita Jawady, her husband Hamid Sadra and their son look through wedding photos from Afghanistan at their home in Austin, Texas on May 17, 2023. Jawady, a former social worker and employee at USAID and Sadra, an artist, fled to Texas from danger they faced from their previous jobs in Afghanistan.
At their home in Austin, Azita Jawady, her husband Hamid Sadra and their 1-year-old son Qmars look through wedding photos from Afghanistan. Credit:Leila Saidane/The Texas Tribune

For now, Jawady and Sadra are trying to focus on what they can control. That includes adjusting to refugee life in Austin, where they live with 1-year-old Qmars, a gentle boy with fluffy spikes of dark hair, in an apartment they found about 15 miles north of downtown.

After first working at an online retailer’s fulfillment center, Sadra, who was an artist in Afghanistan, now works as a technician testing building materials for construction sites. He says he’s become a workaholic after starting over in Austin and struggling to keep up with the city’s high cost of living. Jawady tutors other Afghan refugees in English; she also teaches refugees how to access health care services in Texas through a nonprofit organization.

Navigating the labyrinth of federal, state and local entities in charge of helping them get health care, food and housing support and even diapers and formula for their son has been a head-spinning experience.

“We thought the American people has a special benefits to the babies — maybe some nurses help? Because it’’s my first experience of being a mom, so it’s very hard for me,” Jawady said. “In America, we have a lot of expectation. But it’s different.”

And their immigration status is always on their minds. Jawady applied for an SIV and said she hasn’t heard anything from immigration officials since four months ago, when they said her case was in “stage one.” Sadra’s not eligible for an SIV because he didn’t officially work for the U.S. government, so he applied for asylum in April.

Receiving asylum gives someone temporary permission to stay in the United States and the ability to apply for a green card after a year. The best-case scenario for the family would be that Jawady receives an SIV, which would cover Sadra and Qmars too.

Felix Villalobos, an attorney for RAICES, which provides free and low-cost legal services to immigrants and refugees, said so many Afghans have arrived in Texas after the fall of Kabul that he formed a rapid response team that has counseled Afghan families mostly about special immigrant visas and asylum. He estimates RAICES has worked with 400 Afghan refugees so far, and that has just been in San Antonio, where RAICES operates.

“It is very time-consuming work,” Villalobos said. “It’s not their fault, and they’re just having to deal with the realization that … they’re in a new country, they may lose status here in the next few months and they’re trying to find a way to stay because they can’t go back.”

A system under stress

For refugees, getting help from an immigration attorney can give them the best chance for a favorable decision in their case. But for refugees in Texas with little to no money, free or affordable legal help is hard to come by.

Villalobos is one of those hard-to-come-by attorneys. He’s trying to beat the clock and submit around 200 applications for Temporary Protected Status in the next few months as parole begins to expire for his clients. TPS prevents someone from getting deported for a designated period of time if they’re from a country the U.S. deems unsafe. Recipients get temporary authorization to work, but unlike parole, they don’t get access to public benefits.

And while his clients are also now eligible to extend their parole for two more years, he’s not convinced it will be a smooth process or that it ultimately serves his clients’ best interests.

Helping Afghan clients over the last year and a half has been unnerving for Villalobos and others. Getting official documents out of Afghanistan can be difficult to impossible since its government fell to Taliban rule and its president fled the country.

Houston-based refugee advocate Khalil Arab, an Afghan refugee who received his special immigrant visa in 2019 after spending five years interpreting for the U.S. military and coalition forces, said Afghan refugees without “concrete documentation” are unlikely to be granted visas.

Villalobos says every one of his clients is eligible for an SIV, including some who risked their lives assisting the military at prison camps, in black ops missions or in confrontations with the Taliban. Not receiving a visa at the end of it all would be a huge broken promise, he said.

“All of them had the expectation that upon arrival to the U.S., they would get their green cards,” he said, referring to the fact that under normal circumstances they would have finished the SIV application process prior to leaving Afghanistan and received a green card once they arrived. “It took quite a while for them to understand and figure out that that was no longer the case.”

They have also arrived when the U.S. refugee safety net is badly frayed. The Trump administration drastically reduced the number of refugees allowed into the United States for several years — from 110,000 when Donald Trump took office to 18,000 in 2020. The Biden administration has since raised the limit to 125,000 for fiscal year 2023. But the effects of the previous cuts linger because less federal funding had been flowing to agencies and to the system as a whole.

An aircrew assigned to the 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron prepares to load qualified evacuees aboard a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III in support of Afghanistan evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Afghanistan on Aug. 21, 2021.
An aircrew assigned to the 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron prepares to load Afghan evacuees aboard a U.S. Air Force C-17 at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Afghanistan on Aug. 21, 2021. Credit: U.S. Central Command Public Affairs/Air Force photo by Senior Airman Taylor Crul

Ian Kysel, an expert in migration and refugee law and a professor at Cornell Law School, says that created a vicious cycle starting with the federal government ending contracts or cutting off support to some organizations — “starving” the resettlement system, according to a 2020 Migration Policy Institute report — which caused those organizations to lay off workers and limited how many refugees they could work with at a time.

Texas’ largest refugee resettlement agency, Refugee Services of Texas, collapsed in the wake of those cuts. In March, the organization announced a budget shortfall, and in early May, it announced it was cutting staff and closing some offices. On May 26, it announced it was closing completely. Over the last seven months, the agency has served almost 1,000 refugees in its seven offices across Texas.

When Kabul fell to the Taliban, the system couldn’t accommodate the surge in demand — especially for Afghan refugees who needed specialized help such as Pashto or Dari interpreters.

Khaleemullah Ghazi, a former interpreter for U.S. Special Forces and an Afghan refugee who resettled in Austin after evacuating his country in August 2021, worked at a Texas resettlement agency in 2022 and said caseworker pay is low, especially given the skills needed.

“The person who has a skill of three or four languages, he still is getting paid $16 or $17 an hour,” Ghazi said. “Every person has more than 15 or 20 cases. There’s a … heavy load of work on everybody.”

The refugees have allies who are trying to help them. One veterans organization, Houston-based Combined Arms, has been lobbying Congress to pass legislation that would streamline the Afghan immigration process.

Khalil Arab, the Houston refugee advocate who also works for Combined Arms, said this is an emotional issue for many veterans who feel a deep “moral injury” about how the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan unfolded.

“They left their comrades behind. A lot of them have seen their interpreters or their comrades suffering, go into hiding, some of them even got a family member killed by the Taliban,” Arab said. “So the expectation is to provide them a pathway to legal residency and eventually to citizenship.”

Still waiting

Jawady and Sadra’s humanitarian parole expires in about seven months. In a perfect system, that should be just enough time for Sadra’s asylum to be approved and Jawady’s SIV application to be finalized.

But neither is certain.

The good news for Jawady is that processing time for the visas dropped significantly at the end of last year. The bad news is that the recent end of Title 42, a public health order that went into effect at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and allowed border officials to swiftly deport people who had crossed the U.S. border illegally, could delay refugee processing. Villalobos of RAICES said he’s already seeing the effects.

“USCIS [U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services] has canceled asylum interviews for our clients to move resources to the border. We had several clients set to go to interviews next week and they were all canceled on us yesterday,” Villalobos said on May 11, the final day Title 42 was in effect.

Despite all that his family has gone through since fleeing Afghanistan, though, Sadra isn’t cynical.

“I trust one thing: America is very, very, very lawful,” he said.

But the closing of Refugee Services of Texas seemed to shake Sadra. A lawyer from the organization had been helping them navigate the system, and now they have to start over with another agency, which could further delay things like renewing his work permit.

“Honestly, we don’t have a good feeling, but we don’t have any other option,” Sadra said.

Refugee Services of Texas said in a press release that all of its Austin cases will now be managed by Episcopal Migration Ministries.

One thing keeping Jawady and Sadra grounded is their close ties to family and friends in Afghanistan. But they also feel responsible for them. They were the lucky ones who got out, and they worry about their loved ones’ well-being given the damage to Afghanistan’s economy since the U.S. withdrawal. Sadra feels obligated to send money back home.

“When … Afghanistan fell down, all of the jobs go down … no education, no work, no money, no income. So we should support them,” Sadra said.

They still feel the weight of how their country transformed seemingly overnight. Jawady grieves for the girls who aren’t allowed to go to school or work like she did. To an observer, Jawady’s new jobs with refugees as a tutor and health care advocate could be interpreted as subtle acts of defiance against the Taliban regime.

“It’s really hard for us, all of us just cry,” Jawady said, reflecting on what Afghans have gone through during the last couple of years.

A few minutes later, she quoted the Farsi version of the saying, “This too shall pass.”

Source: The Texas Tribune