Bill That Would Provide Lifeline to Afghan Refugees Blocked in Congress

The Afghan Adjustment Act didn’t make it into the final major spending bill, leaving refugees in limbo.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Refugees disembark from a U.S. Air Force aircraft after an evacuation flight from Kabul at the Rota naval base in Rota, Spain.
Refugees disembark from a U.S. Air Force aircraft after an evacuation flight from Kabul at the Rota naval base in Rota, Spain.
Refugees disembark from a U.S. Air Force aircraft after an evacuation flight from Kabul at the Rota naval base in Rota, Spain, on Aug. 31, 2021. Cristina Quicler/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

Tens of thousands of Afghans who fled to the United States will remain in limbo after Congress dropped legislation that would grant them a path to legal permanent residency from a major government spending bill, leading advocates for refugees to accuse the U.S. government of abandoning its commitments to its Afghan allies.

More than 30 retired top military officers and former U.S. ambassadors to Afghanistan joined a grassroots campaign to push Congress to pass the legislation, the Afghan Adjustment Act, as part of a massive omnibus spending bill before the end of the year. Advocates argue that the act would help save the roughly 70,000 Afghans in the United States from the risk of deportation before their temporary humanitarian parole status expires in 2023.

But opposition from at least one major Republican lawmaker in the Senate scuttled those efforts, and the final bill released Tuesday did not include the act. Supporters saw the omnibus bill as the last chance to pass the act in the current Congress. The act now faces an uncertain future in the new year, as the new Congress will take power with a log-jammed legislative schedule and other competing priorities.

Tens of thousands of Afghans who fled to the United States will remain in limbo after Congress dropped legislation that would grant them a path to legal permanent residency from a major government spending bill, leading advocates for refugees to accuse the U.S. government of abandoning its commitments to its Afghan allies.

More than 30 retired top military officers and former U.S. ambassadors to Afghanistan joined a grassroots campaign to push Congress to pass the legislation, the Afghan Adjustment Act, as part of a massive omnibus spending bill before the end of the year. Advocates argue that the act would help save the roughly 70,000 Afghans in the United States from the risk of deportation before their temporary humanitarian parole status expires in 2023.

But opposition from at least one major Republican lawmaker in the Senate scuttled those efforts, and the final bill released Tuesday did not include the act. Supporters saw the omnibus bill as the last chance to pass the act in the current Congress. The act now faces an uncertain future in the new year, as the new Congress will take power with a log-jammed legislative schedule and other competing priorities.

The news left some current and former U.S. officials who worked on Afghanistan fuming. “I’m angry,” said Ryan Crocker, a retired senior diplomat who served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Syria. “These are people who fought with us, who trusted us. Those who blocked inclusion of the Afghan Adjustment Act in the omnibus have damaged America’s national security and our values,” he said. “It is another retreat from American global leadership. It strengthens our enemies and discourages our allies. We will all pay the price for that.”

The act would offer Afghans in the United States pathways to legal permanent residency and seeks to streamline massive backlogs and bureaucratic bottlenecks for Afghans in the process of trying to permanently settle in the United States. The act enjoys widespread bipartisan support, with 10 co-sponsors—five Democrats and five Republicans.

At least one influential GOP lawmaker, Sen. Chuck Grassley, has opposed the bill from his perch as ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over the legislation. Grassley has raised concerns that the legislation doesn’t have enough provisions in place to vet Afghans seeking entry to the United States for any red flags on national security grounds. Supporters of the bill say the legislation has been adjusted to address those concerns.

Grassley’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Refugee advocates say that by failing to include the act in the omnibus spending bill, Congress is failing the Afghans it vowed to help protect after the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from the 20-year war in Afghanistan.

“Afghans in the U.S. will remain subject to the anxiety and stress of unnecessary legal limbo,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, the president and CEO of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service that offers support and advocacy for refugees in the United States. “The glaring omission of this bill is an epic failure to seize on practical solutions that enjoy broad, bipartisan support.”

Former top military brass and U.S. diplomats argued that not including the Afghan Adjustment Act in the omnibus spending bill would undermine national security. “If Congress fails to enact the [Afghan Adjustment Act], the United States will be less secure,” the former top military officers, including three former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a top NATO commander, wrote in an open letter to Congress on Dec. 17. “As military professionals, it was and remains our duty to prepare for future conflicts. We assure you that in any such conflict, potential allies will remember what happens now with our Afghan allies.”

U.S. lawmakers scrambled in behind-the-scenes, last-minute negotiations to include other provisions for Afghans seeking a way to come to the United States, separate from and despite the setbacks for advocates of the Afghan Adjustment Act. As a result of those negotiations, the omnibus bill includes a provision to expand the number of Afghans allowed into the country through the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program by 4,000, from 34,500 to 38,500. The SIV program was set up to give Afghans who risked their lives aiding U.S. war efforts, such as interpreters for the U.S. military, to permanently resettle in the United States. The program has been plagued with bureaucratic backlogs and red tape for years.

“While I’m frustrated that partisan obstruction necessitated an eleventh-hour solution, I’m relieved that we have a deal to extend the authorization of the Afghan SIV program and that this bill provides an additional 4,000 visas,” said Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a lawmaker who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Senate Armed Services Committee and who helped negotiate the agreement on SIVs in the omnibus bill. “This is about upholding the vow we made to the brave individuals who risked their lives and the safety of their families for the U.S. mission,” she said.

The omnibus spending bill also includes $2.4 billion in additional government funding for supporting Ukrainian refugees fleeing war in their home country after Russia launched a massive invasion of Ukraine in February. Some 85,000 Ukrainians have fled to the United States since the war began.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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