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US Should Use Refugee Resettlement Slots Now

Recognize Status for Afghans Waiting on US Bases

A man walks with a child through Doña Ana Village in Fort Bliss, where Afghan refugees are being housed, in New Mexico on September 10, 2021. © 2021 David Goldman/AP Images

United States President Joe Biden inherited a refugee resettlement program on life support after the administration of former President Donald Trump decimated it. Biden promised to resuscitate the program and raised the refugee admissions ceiling to 62,500 for this fiscal year, which ends on September 30, up from the low cap of 15,000 set by Trump.

With only a month remaining in the fiscal year, however, US refugee admissions stood at a paltry 7,637 at the end of August, raising the prospect that more than 50,000 admissions places could go to waste. At this rate, the Biden administration looks unlikely even to meet the Trump administration’s dismal ceiling.

Excuses are many, and some plausible, but the Afghan refugee emergency requires decisive action in the next two weeks to use the available resettlement numbers.

So far, only 643 Afghan refugees have been admitted this fiscal year. Another 7,973 Afghans have arrived on Special Immigrant Visas, with essentially the same benefits as refugees. But most of the Afghans arriving are coming in under humanitarian parole.

Refugees arrive in country with legal status. They can petition to reunite with parents and children left behind, are eligible for special assistance to help them get on their feet, and are put on a path to permanent residence. But people paroled into the US currently receive none of these benefits, although the Biden administration has indicated it will seek congressional support to offer these benefits to paroled Afghans.

There is historical precedent for expedited refugee status determinations. The Kosovo evacuation of 1999, which quickly brought refugee status for thousands being flown into the US, offers many parallels to the current Afghan arrivals.  

As others have argued, there is sufficient flexibility in the Refugee Act of 1980 to allow US Citizenship and Immigration Services officials to make refugee status determinations for parolees on US soil. Otherwise, immigration officials should conduct quick determinations for tens of thousands of Afghans now sitting on US military bases around the globe, so they can enter as refugees and not simply as parolees. All necessary security and medical screenings should occur in due time, but the Biden administration should recognize refugee status for these people now and fly them to the US before September 30.   

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