Bill would give Afghan evacuees in Minnesota a path to citizenship

US Afghanistan
In this image provided by the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Air Force loadmasters and pilots assigned to the 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, load people being evacuated from Afghanistan onto a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 24.
MSgt. Donald R. Allen | AP 2021

A bill co-authored by U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar would establish a pathway to citizenship for thousands of Afghan evacuees in the United States.

One year after the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Afghan community in Minnesota has grown from a few hundred to around 2,000 and counting. The newly-arrived Afghans — many of whom worked alongside U.S. forces in the 20-year war — have faced uncertainty around their ability to stay in the United States long term.

Michele McKenzie is working with Afghans here as deputy director of The Advocates for Human Rights. She says she’s hopeful the Afghan Adjustment Act, which has bipartisan support and a companion bill in the House, will pass soon after Congress returns from recess in September.

McKenzie joined All Things Considered Friday to discuss the bill. Hear the conversation using the audio player above, or read the transcript below. It has been edited for length.

Can you describe what the problem has been with the current immigration status for Afghan evacuees and how this Afghan Adjustment Act would help?

Our Afghan neighbors deserve safety that lasts, but counterintuitively, U.S. immigration law has no straightforward way for Afghans who were evacuated to stay here permanently. Most of the approximately 100,000 evacuees who entered the United States in that extraordinary airlift last year, came in on a temporary status for two years. And that permission expires in a year. There's no way to actually apply for a green card or become a U.S. citizen out of that status.

The Afghan Adjustment Act would create a clear, straightforward path to stability, to safety, to a future for our Afghan neighbors.

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Well, of course, life goes on and thank goodness that it does. People are having kids. They are enrolling their kids in school and becoming part of life here in Minnesota. But that does lead to mixed status families, people who have a U.S. citizen child, but the rest of the family is still on this temporary status.

We also know that virtually everyone who fled Afghanistan had a family member who was left behind. It was a chaotic withdrawal. And so we have children who are here without their parents. We have parents without their children, spouses missing spouses. And [their temporary status] has made it very difficult for those families to come back together.

The community of Afghan arrivals to Minnesota has grown really exponentially in the last year and, in many cases, it feels like they're really leaning on each other to make it through once a lot of their resources from the government begin to wane. How is that exacerbated when you don't know your status or if you're going to be able to stay in this country?

Uncertain immigration status certainly compounds trauma that people experience. People fled — leaving behind their homes, their careers, their families — and not knowing what the future holds is deeply anxiety-producing. And of course, not having that straightforward path risks sending people back to face serious human rights violations.

But we're also seeing people saying, “You know, we're adjusting to the culture here. We're adjusting to our new lives. We have to be able to become permanent residents here so that we can contribute to our new community and really dig in.”

What is the soonest people would have that relief, to know that they can get started on permanently building lives here?

There will be some period of implementation. The bill envisions having a requirement by the Department of Homeland Security to interview and and repeat background checks for everyone who had arrived as an evacuee.

Now, of course, timing is really up in the air and it's important for our Afghan neighbors to know that there is no process yet. Congress has introduced this bill, but it's not the law. And unfortunately, people have to be on guard for scams or predatory practices saying, “Apply now.” there's nothing to apply for yet. We're still waiting for Congress.