Afghans in US struggle with uncertainty while congressional reforms stall

By Josephine Walker

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Farzana Jamalzada fled Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover in August 2021, fearful that her work with the U.S. government would put her in danger. She found refuge in the U.S. and moved to New York City where she secured a job with a charity organization that helped pay for rent and other necessities.

But her work permit – and that of her husband Farhad – expired at the end of August, leaving them in limbo for weeks or more as they wait for an immigration interview related to their application for permanent residence.

“We really don’t have a lot of savings,” she said. “If we lose our insurances or our benefits, what should we do? Health insurance is very, very expensive here.”

The struggle with immigration paperwork is common for the more than 70,000 Afghans who were evacuated to the U.S. since 2021 under Operation Allies Welcome. Many Afghans, including Jamalzada and her husband, received “humanitarian parole,” which let them live and work in the U.S. for an initial two-year period. In June, President Joe Biden’s administration extended the parole for an additional two years, but the status remains temporary.

A bipartisan coalition of U.S. lawmakers, veterans and advocates are pushing for Congress to create a direct path to permanent residence and eventual citizenship for Afghans under a bill known as the Afghan Adjustment Act. But the legislation has not gained traction in the Republican-led House of Representatives and remains stalled in the Senate, where Democrats hold a narrow majority.

For Afghans who entered the U.S. via humanitarian parole, figuring out the path to permanent status can be challenging, according to Danilo Zak, associate director of policy and advocacy at Church World Service, a group that assists refugees.

“There’s a good number of Afghans who simply can’t afford or can’t find immigration assistance,” Zak said.

Unlike some others, Jamalzada and her husband do have a path to permanent residence. Their work assisting the U.S. government made them eligible to apply for a Special Immigrant Visa, available to translators, interpreters and others who assisted the U.S. during its two-decade military operation.

But the U.S. evacuation from Afghanistan started so suddenly that Jamalzada was forced to flee the country before her visa was fully processed, she said.

To obtain permanent residence, informally known as a green card, the couple must attend a government interview on Sept. 12, leaving them without the right to work for nearly two weeks.

Jamalzada said she hopes Congress will provide a more direct path to permanent status for Afghans so other friends and family already in the U.S. can feel more secure.

“You never know what’s gonna happen to you,” she said.

(Reporting by Josephine Walker; Editing by Ted Hesson and Daniel Wallis)