In August 2021, as a result of the crisis in Afghanistan, thousands of Afghan citizens began arriving in the United States, with urgent needs for legal and social services as they sought to rebuild their lives. We launched our Afghan Asylum Project shortly after with the goal of supporting as many refugees as possible with their asylum cases and providing access to health care, food, shelter, and the other basics they would need right away.
Many of the refugees arrived without a clear legal status — some had visas or temporary humanitarian permission to enter the country, but all of them needed to apply for asylum within one year of entering the country, a daunting task on an individual level, let alone for the thousands of individuals and families arriving at one time.
And the many women and girls who fled the Taliban and feared gender-based persecution would need the assistance of immigration experts with advanced and specialized knowledge to support their claims.
After two years, here is a snapshot of the project’s impact.
Afghan Asylum Helpline
We launched the toll-free Afghan Asylum Help Line in September 2021 to meet the urgent need for specialized immigration services. Trauma-informed Tahirih staff began conducting legal screenings for gender-based asylum claims to determine whether our staff and pro bono network would be able to serve anyone in need.
To date, we have received nearly 300 calls on our Help Line, supported 373 individuals and family members, and delivered training and outreach to 750 professionals and other community members to ensure that newcomers are met with welcome and support.
Direct Legal Services to Afghans
From the calls we’ve received on our helpline, we’ve opened a total of 218 legal cases and 43 social services cases for clients in 41 cities across 18 states. To ensure we have enough legal expertise to meet clients’ needs, Tahirih project attorneys have been mentoring nearly 500 pro bono attorneys so they are prepared to provide assistance as well.
Tahirih also partnered with the State Department, Georgetown Institute for Peace and Security, Vital Voices, and Mina’s List to provide legal representation to a cohort of at least 150 Afghan women leaders and their families, including lawyers, journalists, and politicians. Tahirih is also partnering with the Asian University for Women to support 145 Afghan women who evacuated to the U.S. when their studies were abruptly interrupted as the Taliban took control of their country.
So far, we are happy to report that more than 70 clients have received asylum, enabling them to stay in the U.S. on a permanent pathway to legal status.
Know Your Rights Trainings, Education and Advocacy
In addition to providing direct services through our Help Line, Tahirih has provided extensive training, education, and advocacy to Afghans, service providers, and government officials. Last year, Tahirih staff traveled to Quantico several times and other military bases to provide Know Your Rights information and safety planning to Afghan women and girls awaiting resettlement. Many of these women were either at these locations with their abusers or might be experiencing harassment and mistreatment from members of the U.S. military, so we worked to support and protect them and advocate for their rights and safety with federal officials.
In addition, in partnership with The National Immigrant Women’s Advocacy Project, Catholic Charities, and Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, Tahirih has hosted live translated Know Your Rights webinars and Q&A sessions for Afghan women to disseminate information about legal rights and protections related to gender-based violence, rights under employment law, and eligibility for social benefit programs.
We’ve provided extensive technical assistance to the State Department as they grapple with safety concerns among Afghan women and girls who are at risk of exploitation. We’ve also provided education and advice to the White House, the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, and other federal agencies responding to Afghan survivors’ safety and rights.
While we are proud of all that our team has accomplished in support of Afghans fleeing violence, there is more that can be done at the policy level to improve the situation of Afghan refugees.
For those who fled Afghanistan as part of Operation Allies Welcome in August 2021, they were granted humanitarian parole, which provides them with temporary status in the United States. But they must still apply for asylum, navigating a complex system with lengthy delays and it’s particularly challenging for women and girls applying for asylum protection due to gender-based violence. Humanitarian parole for many Afghans was set to expire in June 2023. The Biden administration granted a two-year extension, but this underscores the uncertainty facing many Afghan families.
Congress made a commitment to support the Afghan families who fled persecution by expediting their asylum claims, but that promise has not been upheld. Unfortunately, attorneys serving Afghan asylum seekers are widely reporting that eligible applicants have not received a decision within the promised 150 days, leaving them at risk of losing crucial health and social services when their humanitarian parole expires. Tahirih’s own Afghan Asylum Project has almost 130 clients with overdue decisions.
At the same time, many Afghans at risk of persecution were left behind in Afghanistan during the initial chaotic evacuation. They have continued to flee to the U.S. seeking protection from violence, but because they arrived later, they do not qualify for the same humanitarian parole protections afforded to those who arrived first. Their status in the U.S. is even more precarious. Afghans in the U.S. with asylum or humanitarian parole can petition for their spouses and children to enter the U.S., but not other family members, and the process can take many months.
Both problems could be resolved if Congress passed the bipartisan Afghan Adjustment Act. The Afghan Adjustment Act will provide Afghan evacuees with a clear and expedited path to permanent status, while also relieving the burden on our asylum system, already overwhelmed with a backlog of hundreds of thousands of applications. We continue to advocate for its passage in Congress with a coalition of partners.
We are grateful to the many experts, organizations, law firms, and providers who have given their time, knowledge, and efforts to give Afghan citizens the welcome and safety they deserve in the United States. We will continue to partner with law firms, our peer organizations, and the U.S. government to ensure that Afghan refugees’ needs are met and their voices are heard as they adjust – and hopefully thrive – in their new lives.