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At San Antonio rally, veterans demand safety for their Afghan allies

Army veteran Matt Zeller (right) with Afghan refugees and supporters of the Afghan Adjustment Act.
Photo courtesy of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America
Army veteran Matt Zeller (right) with Afghan refugees and supporters of the Afghan Adjustment Act.

Veterans demonstrated in San Antonio over the weekend to bring awareness of the Afghan Adjustment Act, which would help those who supported the United States’ 20-year mission in Afghanistan. It was part of a nationwide campaign by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

Some 300,000 Afghans who served alongside American forces didn’t make it out of Afghanistan before the Taliban took over last year. Many of those left behind qualify for the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV), an immigration program that grants permanent residence to people who aided the U.S. government abroad.

But the program has been hamstrung by processing delays. As of August 2022, there were 90,392 applicants in the pipeline with the majority still in Afghanistan.

The Afghan Adjustment Act — introduced in both houses of Congress earlier this year — attempts to alleviate some of the pressure on the already overburdened SIV process.

Afghanistan is now experiencing famine and economic collapse, while Taliban forces are engaged in a systematic campaign to kill those who fought or worked in support of American interests.

“The reality is that if we don't pass this law, the vast majority of them are going to be dead within the next year,” said Matt Zeller, an Army veteran and senior advisor with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

Currently, special immigrant visas (SIV) for Afghans are generally only available to those who were employed by or on behalf of the U.S. government in Afghanistan. The Afghan Adjustment Act would expand SIV eligibility for Afghans who worked alongside U.S forces, to include members of the Afghan National Army Special Operations Command, the Afghan Air Force, the Female Tactical Teams of Afghanistan, and the Special Mission Wing of Afghanistan. Spouses and dependents would be eligible too.

The Afghan Adjustment Act would require the Biden administration to develop a strategy to help Afghan nationals who qualify for admission to the United States — and would mandate the establishment of an immigration office in Afghanistan since none currently exist.

“During our two decades in Afghanistan, American troops worked closely with hundreds of thousands of Afghans who believed in a free and stable future for their country. Today, many of those brave men and women face persecution by Taliban leaders who want to drag the country back in time,” said Congressman Joaquin Castro (TX-20).

“My office has worked extensively to evacuate at-risk Afghans, and I strongly support legislation that would expand U.S. support for our Afghan allies. I’m heartened to see the bicameral, bipartisan support for the Afghan Adjustment Act, and I urge House and Senate leadership to bring the bill to a vote when Congress returns to session in the coming weeks.”

In limbo in America

After the Taliban wrested control of Afghanistan last year, more than 70,000 Afghans were admitted to the U.S. as “humanitarian parolees.” But that status doesn’t give them lasting protection or a pathway to permanent residency in the U.S.

If Congress doesn’t act before August of next year, many Afghan evacuees in the US will face even greater immigration peril — and will either have to leave or apply for asylum. But the asylum application system is backlogged by more than 430,000 cases, with a broader immigration court backlog of 1.4 million cases, according to Human Rights First.

“It'll be years before any of these people have their cases even looked at,” Zeller said. “That's years of limbo for parents who aren’t sure if they’re staying in the United States for good. Or if their kids are going to be allowed to stay in schools here for good. That's limbo for parents who have had children here in the United States, who are now American citizens. What do they do?”

If passed, the Afghan Adjustment Act would allow Afghan parolees already in the United States to apply for an adjustment of status, after which they would become lawful permanent residents. Every person who applied would need to be re-vetted and meet requirements laid out by the U.S. Refugee Admissions program.

Zeller stresses that the safe passage and resettlement of America’s Afghan allies would not only help Afghans, but the U.S. veterans they served alongside.

“We've left behind people that we consider to be fellow soldiers… The only way we can fix that moral injury is to save these people and to help them get to safety.”

Veterans, Afghan evacuees and others met at 600 Navarro Street in San Antonio on Nov. 5 to show support for the Afghan Adjustment Act.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story mischaracterized the goals and mechanisms of the Afghan Adjustment Act, including the documentation and vetting process for the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) and the impact of the legislation on the application process for would-be SIVs.

The Military Desk at Texas Public Radio is made possible in part by North Park Lincoln and Rise Recovery.

Carson Frame can be reached carson@tpr.org and on Twitter at @carson_frame