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A new coalition taps federal aid to assist Afghan immigration process

Afghan evacuees arrived in Iowa without a clear path to residency. Iowa's legal services are stretching to their limits to guide them through the immigration process.

Iowa legal organizations are partnering to address the urgent need to secure a more permanent immigration status for Afghan arrivals.

The University of Iowa’s Center for Human Rights, the Iowa Migrant Movement for Justice and Drake University College of Law’s legal clinic are joining to form the The Afghan Legal League of Iowa (ALL Iowa). The coalition will use a federal grant to coordinate legal support for the more than 1,000 Afghans in the state.

Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in August of last year, forcing many Afghans to flee. They came to the U.S. as humanitarian parolees – a temporary legal status that only lasts for two years. Now, all of these evacuees need to apply for permanent residency in order to remain in the U.S.

But, assistant director of UI’s Center for Human Rights, Amy Weismann, said that the state does not have enough resources to assist each Afghan with the complicated process of applying for special immigrant visas (SIVs), asylum or a temporary protected status (TPS).

“There's an ongoing need for additional services,” she said. “And now with the influx of this particular community with its very unique needs, the service provision is really urgent.”

Weismann said the hope is that the coalition will help to fill some of the service gaps. The funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will be used to expand each organization’s capacity to take on more cases and to establish a virtual help desk.

A brick building with a sign reads "Drake University Law School Legal Clinic".
Drake University College of Law's Legal Clinic
Drake University's legal clinic is one of the partners in ALL Iowa. It will be establishing a virtual help desk for Afghan refugees.

Legal clinic director at Drake University’s College of Law, Suzie Pritchett, said the virtual desk will be a way for unrepresented Afghans from across the state to call in for general legal advice. She said it’s vital considering the evacuees are spread throughout the state.

“It’s recognizing that not everybody's going to get an attorney,” she said. “But, we can create some resources that provide as much help as possible to as many people as possible.”

“We don't see that the situation is going to get better in Afghanistan anytime soon, and so the need to have some sort of system for them to get legal permanent status is so important."
Ann Naffier, Iowa MMJ

Pritchett said the grant also allows the legal clinic to focus on mentoring attorneys from other specializations to engage in pro-bono or low-cost representation.

“It really takes attorneys from across all practice areas coming together to ensure that people have representation in that very complicated immigration system that we have here in the United States,” Pritchett said.

Ann Naffier, legal director at the Iowa Migrant Movement for Justice, said that these inexpensive service options are very important for refugees, who often come to the country with nothing. She said applying for an asylum case can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000.

“We don't see that the situation is going to get better in Afghanistan anytime soon, and so the need to have some sort of system for them to get legal permanent status is so important,” Naffier said.

The group will also coordinate with Iowa resettlement organizations, private law firms and immigration attorneys to conduct a needs assessment. The effort will help to identify where Afghans are living and what kind of resources they are missing, Weismann said.

Even after the project’s two-year duration ends, Pritchett said she hopes the statewide collaborations can lay the groundwork for better immigration services in the future.

“I think the community and networks that it's going to create are going to benefit non citizens throughout Iowa beyond the length of this two year project,” she said.

Kendall is Iowa Public Radio’s western Iowa reporter based in Sioux City, IA.