GREENSBORO, N.C.—When Asrar boarded a plane with more than 400 other Afghans fleeing Kabul for America last year, the longtime intelligence officer said he felt something he hadn’t in a long time: safe.
But more than a year later, the former Afghan colonel who spent two decades hunting Taliban fighters before arriving in North Carolina, says he has seen that sense of safety replaced by uncertainty and dread.
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Asrar and his family are among some 80,000 Afghans who were evacuated to the U.S. when the Taliban regained power, and many are still uncertain about whether they will be permitted to stay.
Even as they have started finding homes and jobs, they have been caught in legal purgatory as paths to a coveted visa or green card remain hazy. The Biden administration’s calls on Congress to provide all evacuated Afghans a path to citizenship—as the government had done after similar evacuations from Vietnam and Iraq—have so far gone unheeded.
Bipartisan legislation in Congress, sponsored by Sens.
(D., Minn.) and
(R., S.C.) and based off the Biden administration’s proposal, would address the issue by providing evacuated Afghans a direct path to green cards pending additional security checks.
The bill, known as the Afghan Adjustment Act, is modeled on a similar law passed after the Vietnam War to provide a path to citizenship for the more than 100,000 refugees from southeast Asia the U.S. airlifted after the war. Similar laws also were passed for Cubans after the 1959 communist revolution and for Iraqi Kurds after the first Iraq war.
Military veterans along with refugee resettlement organizations have made passing the measure a priority, with veteran’s groups camping outside the Capitol in public protest. But the measure is pending in Congress, caught up in broader political fights over immigration. Some Republican senators also have objected to the mass grant of green cards because of their concerns about potentially inadequate vetting of the evacuees brought to the U.S.
“Public safety and national security are clearly at stake here,” Iowa Sen.
the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said last month.
Many evacuees are meanwhile applying for asylum, a cumbersome process that requires each family to provide evidence that their lives would be in danger back in Afghanistan.
“We evacuated them, and now we’re questioning whether they should qualify for asylum?” said
an immigration attorney based in Anchorage, Alaska, who specializes in military issues. “The whole thing frankly doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
Throughout a two-decade career with the Afghan National Directorate of Security, Asrar, who asked that only his first name be used for this article, helped hunt, capture and sometimes kill Taliban fighters, he said. He did so at the behest of Central Intelligence Agency operatives, who didn’t directly employ him but advised his unit on operations. The CIA didn’t respond to a request for comment.
“Here’s a guy who gave his entire vocational life to fight terrorism, which is wholly aligned with U.S. interests,” said
executive director of the Wilberforce Center in Greensboro, who represents Asrar and more than 200 other Afghan clients.
After 10 days in hiding, Asrar, his wife and four adult children were guided into the Kabul airport and boarded one of the last evacuation flights, he recalled. One of the few documents Asrar said he was able to smuggle out of the country is a letter threatening his execution, typed in Arabic script and bearing the royal blue Taliban seal.
Asrar was employed by the Afghan government rather than by the Americans, so his only recourse for staying in the U.S. is by applying for asylum. His case is complicated because his former employer, Afghanistan’s main intelligence agency, has a history of torture and other human-rights abuses against Taliban detainees, according to State Department reports.
To win asylum, an applicant must prove they never participated in the persecution or torture of another person or group. A different employee of the Afghan intelligence agency who is now living near Portland, Ore., worked inside one of the agency’s detention centers, and he was recently notified that the U.S. plans to deny his asylum claim, according to
the applicant’s attorney.
Asrar’s asylum interview, which took place in September, lasted more than nine hours and focused on questions about his work with the intelligence service. It was a more detailed interrogation than any he had conducted in Afghanistan, Asrar said he joked with his interviewer.
Asrar, his wife Rahima and their children are attempting to rebuild their lives. With the assistance of church volunteers, they moved into a one-story brick ranch, enrolled in English classes and found a mosque to attend along with some of the other 300 Afghans resettled in Greensboro. Asrar works at the nearby
Tyson Foods Inc.’s
Asrar’s children debate whether Canada or Mexico would make a better destination, but Asrar said he is determined to stay in the U.S. “America did right by us once,” he said. “I have confidence they will help us again.”
Lawyers expect that most Afghans applying for asylum will eventually win their cases or find alternative routes to stay in the country. Immigration attorneys, nonprofit groups and law students across the country have formed a network to try to help as many Afghans as possible prepare their applications.
Not all can expect to win their cases, lawyers say, either because of a lack of available evidence that would sufficiently prove they would be singled out for persecution in Afghanistan and some, like Asrar, will run into problems with the human-rights records of their employers. Others might find themselves barred from a green card because they gave aid, however unwillingly, to the Taliban, such as treating a Taliban fighter at a hospital or teaching his child at a local school, attorneys said.
“While some members of the public think everyone from Afghanistan should get asylum, our system just doesn’t work that way,” said
a professor of immigration law at Cornell Law School.
Write to Michelle Hackman at [email protected]
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