Nearly two years after American forces withdrew from Afghanistan, a bipartisan group of lawmakers have reintroduced legislation to help the Afghans evacuated into the United States finally obtain a pathway to permanent residency and assist those allies who remain in Afghanistan. Although the bill, called the Afghan Adjustment Act, has broad support, its proximity to the thorny questions of immigration and the 20-year war in Afghanistan have complicated its prospects in Congress.
“This is our moment,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar, the lead Democratic sponsor of the bill, in a speech on the Senate floor on Wednesday. “We have had two years to show the world whether or not we’re going to stand with those that stood with us.”
It has been a long wait for Congress to act. In the summer of 2021, tens of thousands of Afghans were evacuated into the U.S. using humanitarian parole, which allowed them to stay in the country for two years. While the Biden administration recently extended that parole status for another year, these evacuees are still unable to obtain permanent legal status except through the asylum or special immigrant visa, or SIV, application systems—both of which are onerous and severely backlogged. The Afghan Adjustment Act would allow those parolees to apply for permanent residence after additional vetting—including an in-person interview, a priority for the Republican co-sponsors of the bill. In recent decades, similar legislation has been passed to assist refugees from Vietnam, Cuba, and Iraq.
The bill would also expand SIV eligibility to cover previously excluded groups, including the Female Tactical Teams of Afghanistan—a unit of the Afghan Special Security Forces that worked closely with U.S. special operations forces to hunt down Taliban and ISIS targets in Afghanistan. It would also create a task force to assist Afghans outside of the U.S. eligible for SIV status and require that the State Department reply to congressional inquiries about visa applications.
“Americans owe Afghans a debt, and the Afghan Adjustment Act would be a downpayment on that debt,” said Arash Azizzada, co-founder and co-director of Afghans for a Better Tomorrow. Azizzada called the bill “the most monumental legislation based on our community in decades.”
The instability that Afghan evacuees feel is exacerbated by the impending expiration of their humanitarian parole this August. Although the Biden administration allowed those evacuated to the U.S. in the summer of 2021 to renew their parole for another two years, they still face the risk of being returned to Afghanistan when that period ends, likely to face serious threat from the Taliban.
Given this time constraint, supporters of the Afghan Adjustment Act in the Senate continue to argue that passing it is not only a moral imperative but will show future potential allies—and enemies—whether the U.S. keeps its word.
“The decision we make right now of whether we live up to the covenant we made to our Afghan allies is going to reverberate militarily and diplomatically for longer than any of us will serve in this body,” Klobuchar said in her speech on Wednesday.
The Afghan Adjustment Act has garnered support from veterans groups, former high-ranking military personnel, and refugee advocacy organizations. The bill is also supported by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which included the Afghan Adjustment Act in its list of bipartisan immigration bills that would help “businesses and communities to prosper and grow.”
Rodger Pinto, associate of policy and advocacy at the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, told me that this legislation was particularly important for the post-9/11 generation of veterans who deployed in Afghanistan, many of whom felt a “moral injury” at leaving their allies behind. Many of those Afghan nationals who worked with the U.S. military as translators or in other capacities have not made it out of Afghanistan and are now being explicitly targeted by the Taliban.
“To leave Afghanistan through the withdrawal and see not only those promises that we made but those relationships we built broken is a really painful thing for the veterans community,” said Pinto, who served in Afghanistan during his time as an infantry paratrooper in the Army.
Supporters of the legislation in Congress are hoping to include the measure as an amendment to this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, which is currently under consideration in the Senate, but prospects are hazy. The bill’s Republican co-sponsors in the Senate include the ranking members of the Judiciary Committee, the Armed Services Committee, and the Veterans Affairs Committee. But despite its bipartisan support, the bill has earned skepticism from some Republicans. Senator Chuck Grassley, the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee subcommittee that handles immigration issues, single-handedly blocked its passage last year over concerns about the vetting process. Grassley’s hackles were raised after a September inspector general’s report found that the Department of Homeland Security “admitted or paroled evacuees who were not fully vetted into the United States.”
Although the sponsors of the Afghan Adjustment Act introduced last year attempted to address Grassley’s concerns, the bill never made it out of committee and was not included in the end-of-year government spending bill.
When asked about Grassley’s thoughts on the reintroduced Afghan Adjustment Act, a spokesperson for the senator instead highlighted his support for a competing bill introduced by Senator Tom Cotton. That bill, also introduced as an amendment to the NDAA, would provide a pathway to residency for Afghan evacuees and set up a process for service members to refer Afghan allies who provided support to the military. But it would severely restrict a president’s ability to grant humanitarian parole as well—a potent issue for Republicans with hard-line immigration stances.
Indeed, because immigration is such a contentious issue—particularly approaching an election year—some supporters of the Afghan Adjustment Act theorize that the bill’s connection to the issue may be hindering its passage. In a letter to congressional leaders, a group of retired military officials contended that Cotton’s bill “betrays America’s veterans by undercutting our efforts over the last two years,” as it does not expand the SIV program or “adequately support those left behind.”
“This is not the proper venue for large-scale immigration reform—our focus must now be on protecting our Afghan allies,” the letter said. “These allies have been waiting years for Congress to do its duty and honor America’s promise to Afghanistan; they should not be used as pawns in a political debate on immigration.”
Pinto said Cotton’s bill would not “make the kind of progress that we’re seeking.” Time is of the essence for Afghan allies still trapped in Afghanistan, he continued, and so the effort must be focused on passing the legislation that would help those individuals. “Increasingly, it’s harder and harder to get a hold of folks, and we start hearing from them. And often, on our end, that means they’ve gone into hiding, or unfortunately they’ve been killed,” Pinto said about maintaining contact with former translators and other allies still in Afghanistan. “The longer this drags on, the more pain this causes for our community.”
But GOP Senator Thom Tillis, a co-sponsor of both the Afghan Adjustment Act and Cotton’s bill, doesn’t believe that competing legislation muddies the waters. He said that he signed on to both bills because Cotton “is making some good points” but added that he believed the Afghan Adjustment Act had “broadening” bipartisan support. Tillis also noted that he was initially against the Afghan Adjustment Act but had supported this version of the bill because of the more stringent vetting requirements.
“Now we have the experience that comes from time,” Tillis told me about the adjustments to the bill. “That’s why I felt I could support it, and help secure votes.”
In a speech on the Senate floor on Wednesday, GOP Senator Jerry Moran argued that the Afghan Adjustment Act addressed concerns about sufficient screening for the evacuees. As the nearly 80,000 Afghans paroled into the U.S. are already in the country, he argued, this bill would ensure that they are subject to additional vetting.
“The rushed and chaotic withdrawal created a potential loophole for bad actors to be admitted into the United States. So if you’re interested in our national security, which I know we all are, this amendment establishes a critical vetting process to reduce the threats,” Moran said. “Failing to pass this amendment, failing for this bill to become law, means that none of the refugees will undergo the necessary additional vetting.”
But even if the Afghan Adjustment Act was included in the Senate version of the NDAA, it’s unclear whether it would be in the final bill negotiated by both chambers of Congress. Although it has relatively widespread support among Senate Republicans, including those on the more conservative end of the spectrum, it has limited support among GOP representatives in the lower chamber. Of the 10 House Republicans who co-sponsored the bill last year, three have since left Congress and one is a nonvoting delegate.
Representative Michael McCaul, the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has repeatedly slammed the Biden administration for the withdrawal from Afghanistan and highlighted the plight of Afghan allies left behind. But McCaul was not a sponsor of the Afghan Adjustment Act last year, and a spokesperson did not return a request for comment on his opinion on the newly reintroduced bill. Meanwhile, House Republicans have been focused on taking the Biden administration to task on issues of border security, which could cloud any bipartisan effort to assist Afghan evacuees already in the U.S.
Nevertheless, Azizzada argues that a failure to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act would be a further betrayal of the Afghan people, particularly considering the painful and “traumatic” anniversary of the withdrawal from Afghanistan. “America’s commitment and involvement in the war was bipartisan. America’s failure to win that war, America’s betrayal of Afghans and the Afghan people and Afghan allies was also bipartisan,” he said. “I think, at times, elected officials in D.C. are just eager to forget Afghans or use us as political tools.”