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Immigration process may leave some Afghans in Texas unable to work

An afghan man uses his phone sitting under live oak trees outside the Center for Refugee Services in San Antonio
Paul Flahive
An afghan man uses his phone sitting under live oak trees outside the Center for Refugee Services in San Antonio

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Two years ago, the U.S withdrew its forces from Afghanistan, ending 20 years of war, and the country fell to the Taliban. The U.S. took in tens of thousands of fleeing Afghans in Operation Allies Welcome.

Afghan evacuees were given a temporary immigration status called humanitarian parole, allowing them to live and work in the U.S. The program was scheduled to end for many in coming weeks.

The Biden administration announced in May it would extend the program to the relief of those 77,000 Afghans who risked their lives working for the U.S. military.

But concern is growing as their initial parole’s conclude and Afghans wait to find out their status — some just weeks away from losing their jobs.

Men with filled folders and plastic grocery sacks bulging with documents tensely awaited assistance at the Center for Refugee Services in San Antonio last week. Many of them need help filling out government forms. A new one arrived the week before asking for updated contact details.

Aryan sat among the men waiting to speak with a legal aid. He’s one of the tens of thousands of Afghan evacuees waiting for his humanitarian parole to be extended. Like everyone TPR interviewed for this story, he provided only his first name because he’s worried about the safety of his family.

Humanitarian parole allows Aryan access to food assistance, Medicaid and most importantly the ability to work.

He’s been driving for an app-based food delivery service for months but he just got a text from them.

“Right now he received a text message from the company that your work authorization is going to expire. Maybe we close your platform,” translated Naqibullah Ehsas, a Center staff member who is also an evacuee. He explained that Aryan was told if he can’t get the company proof his immigration status is secure, he will be terminated.

Aryan’s work authorization expires on Sept. 21. In Texas that means his driver's license will also expire. It could take one to two months to renew with new documents. This could leave the real possibility that he won’t be able to send money back to his wife and child in Afghanistan or afford his rent here.

“Yes, I worry a lot regarding this issue,” Aryan said. “I cannot work. I have a family in Afghanistan. I want to support them. If I don't have a job, I don't have work. I have a lot of expenses here and also in Afghanistan. So I worry, and I'm very concerned about it.”

A DHS official told NPR they were processing applications for re-parole and extensions quickly, but had little power over how states issue licenses. The state has no expedited process for Afghans.

Dr. Luqman Shah Sultani translates for Alex Crous (left) as they fill out government forms for Afghan evacuees.
Paul Flahive
Dr. Luqman Shah Sultani translates for Alex Crous (left) as they fill out government forms for Afghan evacuees.

A line to speak to attorney Alex Crous spilled into the lobby of the Center. Crous has been volunteering two days a week since May to help Afghans with government documents.

“A lot of times they come in with just a stack of letters and some of them are clearly immigration documents, some over advertisements," he explained, "but they don't know what any of them are. So they hold everything.“

Another volunteer, Luqman Shah Sultani, translated for him. The language barrier for these non-native readers keeps both men busy.

“Some days I'll be sitting in here, and it's just nonstop until the place closes. I think right now it's going to busy for a while especially if they just sent those letters out."

U.S. Customs and Immigration Services sent out a document for Afghans to update their contact details in August, Crous explained. One Afghan man pulled photocopies of his ID out of a grocery sack. As Crous jots down information and asks more questions, other men in the room stand and stoop over him and start to pull their own documents out or call relatives for more information.

Crous said it’s a complicated process.

Afghans who already applied for asylum or for another immigration status were automatically considered for an extension. A DHS official said they have already processed most of this group’s extensions.

But thousands of others had to apply for “re-parole” and used form I-131. One government official called it a catch-all form for applying for multiple immigration scenarios. Afghans said it was confusing.

“So you have to select this option that says, 'I'm applying for reentry into the United States,' but they're already here,” Crous explained.

The form is used for many things including as a request to return from travel abroad.

“The fact is, you wouldn't know that unless you visited one web page on the Immigration Services website,” he said. “There's no like affirmative thing that they've done to make people know that not only do they have to fill out this form, but that they have to fill it out incorrectly.”

A DHS official conceded it could be confusing, but instructions for how to fill it out are online. He encouraged using the online application because it was simpler to navigate. Many parts of the U.S. Citizens and Immigration Services website dealing with Afghans have been translated to Dari and Pashto. But the online process can be difficult for anyone whose primary internet access is a smartphone.

In another room, center director Margaret Constantino speaks with another evacuee named Kwari. He works for a food preparation business. He said he liked the job.

“It is good for me. Now, In maybe two months times — i’m a supervisor. Now I'm training,” he said.

He recently got an email from the government that he thinks is important and came into the Center office to print it off. He hands his phone to Constantino who reads it.

“And it says, ‘your automatic extension is for 540 days.’ Yes, Yes. So you're not going to lose your job,” said Constantino to his relief.

That’s welcome news for a room filled with other men waiting for some indication they belong here.

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Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org