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Congress could help Afghan evacuees stay here. Until then, they're in asylum limbo

It’s been two years this month since the Biden administration evacuated more than 70,000 Afghans from their country. 

The evacuees included Afghan journalists and teachers, along with soldiers, interpreters and others who worked with the U.S. military. They evacuated from the airport in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, on Aug. 15, after American forces withdrew from the country and the Taliban took control. 

One of them was 37-year-old Mahnaz Akbari. A few days after the chaotic exit from her country, she stepped off a plane at a U.S. military base in Wisconsin. A crowd of Americans awaited her.

“And they were waiting for us, when we came, like all of them stand and clap for us,” she said. 

It was the first time Akbari had stepped foot in the U.S. But she’d worked alongside American soldiers for years back in Afghanistan.  

She was the commander of an Afghan military unit called the Female Tactical Platoon — an elite all-women team that joined U.S. Special Forces on high-stakes raids on suspected Taliban and ISIS fighters. 

The work made her a Taliban target. So, Akbari understood that the claps ringing out that day in Wisconsin were because people were relieved. She and other Afghans had made it out safely.

Still, she says, it was complicated, squaring that celebration with all the thoughts still ringing out inside her head.

“I didn’t feel good,” she said. “I thought to myself, ‘OK, I am alive, I am here, what about my family, my parents, my brother?”

'I don’t have my asylum status'

Two years later, Akbari is still asking those same questions. I reached her on Zoom this month from her home in Maryland. She wore glasses with amber-colored lenses and her dark hair was pulled back away from her face.

She was one of more than three dozen platoon members evacuated in 2021 — some of whom ended up in Arizona.

Akbari managed to bring her two nieces with her from Kabul back then. But the rest of her family is spread out all over the world today. On phone calls with her parents in Iran, Akbari says they always ask when they’ll see each other next.

“It’s really hard for me, because I don’t have my asylum status, so I can’t go there,” she said. 

And she can’t bring them here. That’s because, like most Afghan evacuees in the U.S. now, Akbari came on humanitarian parole. 

"On the other hand, waiting for a decision is taking an extended period of time. So, no matter how you look at it, it seems like everything is just dragging out." — Mo Goldman, Tucson immigration attorney

It’s a special status that allows foreign nationals to come to the U.S. quickly and apply for a work permit. It’s been used for decades to respond to crises — like recently, with the war in Ukraine.

But the status is temporary. Akbari’s only option to stay here permanently is to get asylum. Citizenship and Immigration Services has prioritized Afghan evacuees for asylum screenings. Tucson immigration attorney Mo Goldman says those initial interviews with the agency are only the beginning of a much longer process.

“On the other hand, waiting for a decision is taking an extended period of time. So, no matter how you look at it, it seems like everything is just dragging out,” he said. 

1 month until status, permits expire

Data compiled by the research group TRAC in December of last year showed a backlog of more  than 1.6 million pending asylum cases nationwide. The latest figures from Citizenship and Immigration Services and TRAC show that number is closer to 2 million now.

Goldman says on the ground, that means even his Afghan clients, whose process is supposed to be sped up, are waiting more than a year for a decision. 

“It causes delays for these individuals to achieve greater things,” he said.

Meanwhile, the humanitarian parole status and the work permit attached to it is set to expire at the end of this month for most Afghans. 

Evacuees are allowed to extend their parole for another two years. But Rebekah Edmondson, a U.S. Army veteran who worked with the Female Tactical Platoon in Afghanistan, worries the legal limbo could drag on even further.

“I don’t know really, you know, how else to describe how I’m feeling, other than, just tired,” she said. “Feeling like you’re screaming at the top of your lungs for years at a time.”

Afghan Adjustment Act in limbo

Edmondson helped Akbari and other female Afghan soldiers evacuate in 2021. Now she’s trying to help them stay. They’ve  put together numerous trips to D.C. over the last two years to advocate for the Afghan Adjustment Act. 

The legislation would provide a pathway to citizenship for many evacuees, like the platoon members. but failed to pass last year. Lawmakers introduced a new version in July, but it hasn’t moved forward yet.

“It’s very disheartening to feel on one hand like they’re notionally safe, but it certainly isn’t a victory in the big scheme of things, it’s not a happy ending,” she said. “But I think the government doing right by us and passing the Afghan Adjustment Act and having legislation that actually supports them in a way that they're deserving of could at least make it more palatable.”

"I don’t know really, you know, how else to describe how I’m feeling, other than, just tired. Feeling like you’re screaming at the top of your lungs for years at a time." — Rebekah Edmondson, U.S. Army veteran

While the legislation waits in Congress, Afghans like Akbari are stuck. She got her asylum interview last September. But she hasn’t heard anything since. Of the more than three dozen platoon members, only three have gotten asylum so far. On phone calls back to Iran, Akbari keeps finding excuses for her family. 

“Every time I say I will come in several months, and they say, when will your several months finish?” she said.

She’s just not sure exactly when that’ll be.

More stories from KJZZ

Alisa Reznick is a senior field correspondent covering stories across southern Arizona and the borderlands for the Tucson bureau of KJZZ's Fronteras Desk.