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Most Afghans arriving in America are not strictly refugees, despite how they’re described. And that could be a big problem for them.

“The last thing we want to see is our new neighbors unable to keep a roof over their heads”

Afghan families began arriving at Philadelphia International Airport in late August, not long after the country fell to the Taliban. The classification under which Afghans were evacuated could prevent them from getting assistance they need to start new lives here.
Afghan families began arriving at Philadelphia International Airport in late August, not long after the country fell to the Taliban. The classification under which Afghans were evacuated could prevent them from getting assistance they need to start new lives here.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

When the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan provoked a humanitarian crisis, Philadelphia’s two major resettlement agencies decided to act together, big and bold: They would welcome 1,000 Afghans to new lives.

If other places could consider accepting that many evacuees, then larger, more diverse Philadelphia could do the same.

Then they found out how much financial support the federal government intended to provide.

Resettling 1,000 people became impossible. The number dropped to 300. And even that has left HIAS Pennsylvania and Nationalities Service Center short about $1.5 million in funding.

“It’s a very, very tough situation,” said Cathryn Miller-Wilson, HIAS executive director.

The problem is the way many incoming Afghans are classified under federal immigration laws.

Since the first families stepped off of evacuation flights in the United States, they’ve been described by politicians, government officials, and news reporters as “refugees.”

That may be rhetorically acceptable, but it’s legally incorrect. The designation of “refugee” is a specific status, one that comes with benefits and privileges designed to help some of the world’s most vulnerable people gain footholds on new lives.

Most of the thousands of people living at eight U.S. military installations, including Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in South Jersey, are here under what’s called “humanitarian parole.”

Parole is merely a permission to enter, not an immigration status. It provides little of the government assistance that automatically goes to refugees. No food or medical care. It doesn’t grant immediate permission to work, or even guarantee a path for arriving Afghans to stay in this country.

“There is a real prospect that without robust support, some of these people will experience homelessness,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service in Baltimore. “The last thing we want to see is our new neighbors unable to keep a roof over their heads as they go through their first winter here.”

The International Rescue Committee, a global aid organization, said it’s critical that Afghan allies get the same resources and opportunities as refugees. It called on Congress to give evacuees full assistance and a route to legal permanent residency in this country.

A bill called the WELCOMED Act — Welcoming Evacuees Coming from Overseas to Mitigate Effects of Displacement — has been introduced in Congress, but it’s unclear when or if it might pass.

“The resettlement agencies that are working with Afghans are going to face a real resource crunch,” said Cris Ramón, an independent immigration-policy analyst in Washington.

Some agencies hesitate to commit to accepting larger numbers, knowing they might not be able to offer sufficient support. Many start this work from weakened positions. After the Trump administration dramatically reduced refugee resettlement, many organizations were forced to dig into reserve funds or lay off staff.

Humanitarian parole is usually limited, granted on a case-by-case basis to people in urgent need. Say, for instance, an adult child needs to enter the country to care for a dying parent.

At times it’s been used to evacuate large groups, including in 1996 to help 6,600 Kurdish allies leave Iraq for a U.S. base and in 1975 to assist 130,000 Vietnamese after the fall of Saigon, according to the National Immigration Forum.

Sometimes Congress has authorized additional funding to support new arrivals.

When Kabul fell to the Taliban in August, the United States sought to evacuate people through every available channel, Ramón said, but now that chaotic exit has created big complications.

Under Operation Allies Refuge, the Biden administration plans to vet and resettle more than 50,000 evacuees, including the roughly 9,500 now living in South Jersey. Most served the U.S. military effort in some capacity.

People who come to the United States as refugees — granted protection because they could be harmed or killed in their own country — are entitled to employment training, English classes, and child care. They get government health care through Medicare and food from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps.

People here under humanitarian parole can seek health care through Affordable Care Act exchanges but must pay deductibles and co-payments. Unlike refugees, who automatically get permission to work, people with parole only get the right to apply for employment authorization.

Without changes, the situation for Afghan arrivals could turn dire.

“We’d like to say yes to more [than 300 evacuees], but that’s going to depend on whether we can honorably resettle folks, not resettle them into poverty,” said Margaret O’Sullivan, executive director of NSC. “I’m not going to be the person to say to a family, ‘We can meet your immediate needs,’ when that’s not true.”

Refugees are required to apply for permanent residency within a year of arrival, and the government forgoes the filing fee, typically $1,225.

Parolees must find their own way toward permanent status.

That generally means seeking asylum, where attorneys’ fees can cost $1,800 or more. Proving an asylum case could be hard for Afghan families because many destroyed the documents that show their ties to the Americans, in case they were questioned by the Taliban.

NSC and HIAS estimate it takes $5,540 to support a refugee for six months, of which $4,300 is covered by the government. It’s the same for Afghans who received Special Immigrant Visas for having worked with the U.S. military.

But it costs $7,340 to support a parolee, with only $2,275 covered by federal programs. That’s a shortfall of $5,065 per person.

To resettle 300 evacuees — 100 by HIAS, 200 by NSC — requires an additional $1.5 million.

The two agencies have raised part of that from donations and grants. And this month agency leaders spoke to the Philanthropy Network of Greater Philadelphia about the Afghans’ need for additional housing, food, medical care, and legal assistance.

Other resettlement agencies around the country also are turning to philanthropic organizations, congregations, private donors, and community groups to help cover shortfalls for Afghans.

“They’re going to need the support of the community,” said Wendy Feliz, who directs the Center for Inclusion and Belonging at the American Immigration Council in Washington. “They will not be getting the support that normally refugees would get.”

Many evacuees here under parole are applying for SIVs, or want to do so, which if approved would provide them the same benefits as refugees.

But the processing time for an SIV application has stretched to nearly two years, according to the Migration Policy Institute. The actual wait is even longer, because that estimate doesn’t include the time needed to gather supporting documents.

Some applicants have waited as long as 3½ years for their SIV, according to the National Immigration Forum.

“If we want to do right by these families and individuals, and set them up for success, it needs to involve immediate care and long-term support,” said Vignarajah, of Lutheran Service. “We owe it to them to provide the same support as to traditional refugees.”