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Refugee support orgs worry over no federal legislation to assist Afghan evacuees

A hand writes on a white piece of paper.
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.

A bill that would create a legal pathway to citizenship for Afghan evacuees in the U.S. did not make it into an end of the year spending bill passed by Congress.

Iowa resettlement agencies are worried about what this means for the hundreds of Afghans now living in the state. The Afghan evacuees only have temporary legal status in the country as humanitarian parolees – which expires for many within a year.

Lutheran Services in Iowa, an organization assisting in the resettlement process in Des Moines and Sioux City, has seen slow movement on getting the newest arrivals to Iowa through the immigration process.

The Afghan Adjustment Act was intended to expedite the process for Afghan evacuees, by expanding the eligibility for special immigrant visas and streamlining the application process.

Family services manager Laura Thako said it’s been a challenge to meet the legal needs of Afghans with limited resources and long backlogs. She said she’s disappointed to see no movement on the bill.

“It really is a promise that we made to our allies who were serving alongside our military in Afghanistan, and for our credibility around the world,” Thako said. “It's so important that our partners see us follow through on our commitments.”

Thako said the organization will continue to push Iowa legislators to throw support behind the bill.

Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley has been outspoken in his criticism of the measure, citing a concern for the vetting process for Afghan evacuees. He also expressed concern of legislatively ratifying the “Biden administration’s abuse of the immigration parole statute.”

“Grassley is working with colleagues on legislation to help our Afghan allies who are still stuck in Afghanistan and provide better vetting and stability for the Afghan evacuees already here,” a spokesperson for Grassley said in a statement to IPR.

Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst expressed similar concerns with ensuring each Afghan evacuee is properly vetted. Last year, she threw her support behind the Afghan Allies Protection Act, which increased the number of authorized special immigrant visas by 8,000.

"It really is a promise that we made to our allies who were serving alongside our military in Afghanistan."
Laura Thako, LSI family services manager

Executive director of the Iowa Migrant Movement for Justice, an immigration legal services organization, Erica Johnson said she feels refugee support organizations aren’t being listened to by lawmakers.

Johnson said she wants to see more Republican legislators and business leaders stand up in support of the act. She said every immigration case is unique, but some evacuees could face the risk of becoming undocumented in just a year if action isn’t taken.

“When you’re undocumented, you're not supposed to work. You can't drive, you can't get a driver's license in Iowa,” she said. “There is just a greater risk threat of deportation back to a country that you fled from.”

Mirzaye holds his English language dictionary in his hands. He's one of 150 refugees who moved to Sioux City from Tyson for work.
Kendall Crawford
Saifullah Mirzaye holds his English language dictionary in his hands. He's one of 150 refugees who moved to Sioux City from Tyson for work.

Saifullah Mirzaye, an evacuee who was resettled in Sioux City after serving as a military pilot in Afghanistan, has not yet seen progress in his application for a more permanent immigration status. He applied for asylum 7 months ago.

He said he’s worried with all the uncertainty surrounding his status. He said he would be afraid for his life if he had to go back to his home country.

“I was in many missions flying with our U.S. allies. We worked together for the same values for years. I went through death many times,” Mirzaye said in a statement to IPR. “And I am so sorry for the Congress that they don't even care about our lives,”

Kendall was Iowa Public Radio’s western Iowa reporter based in Sioux City, IA until Jan. 20, 2023.