Afghan refugees face looming unemployment crisis
PHILADELPHIA — Cathryn Miller-Wilson has worked in immigration long enough to know when a crisis is walking toward her.
And right now the director of HIAS Pennsylvania hears the sound of moving feet — a slow-motion calamity that could dramatically affect the lives of some 76,000 Afghan evacuees who were brought to the United States when their country fell to the Taliban in August 2021.
Those newcomers — including about 800 who were resettled in the Philadelphia area — face the prospect of mass unemployment, with their work authorizations set to expire this summer. They have found work across industries, as cashiers, in warehouses, even helping fellow evacuees in immigration agencies.
“This is a huge, looming crisis,” said MillerWilson, whose agency supports low-income immigrants in building new lives. “Nobody seems to be doing anything about it.”
If August seems distant, six months away, she said, then consider the glacial pace of the nation’s immigration apparatus. For Afghan war allies, the problem lies in how the Biden administration brought them and their families into the country.
Politicians, government officials, and news reporters commonly describe the evacuees as “refugees.” While they fit the U.N. definition — someone who crossed an international border to escape violence or crisis in their homeland — almost none are legally designated as refugees.
That’s a specific immigration status, one that comes with benefits and privileges, including the ability to live here permanently and to seek U.S. citizenship.
Instead, almost all the Afghans were admitted under what’s called humanitarian parole, which is a permission to enter the country, not an immigration status. It’s temporary. It provides no automatic path to permanent residency or citizenship.
Instead, Congress tied Afghans’ permission to work to their humanitarian parole. The idea was that evacuees would apply for asylum, and that designation would confer the right to live and work in the United States and to seek citizenship.
But applications for asylum have exploded — a record 1.6 million cases as of December 2022, according to the Transactional Records Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. The wait time for a typical asylum case to be heard is nearly five years.
Every Afghan client of HIAS Pennsylvania has filed for asylum, and none of the 26 has received a ruling, Miller-Wilson said.
Hili Chakhansuri knows what that’s like for fellow evacuees. The former Afghanistan government official and diplomat spent months living with thousands of other arrivals in South Jersey at Joint Base McGuireDix-Lakehurst, one of the military bases where newcomers were temporarily housed.
She received asylum, she said, after being able to enlist the help of an immigration attorney. But she’s heard from more than a hundred Afghans around the country who have no asylum and now face the expiration of their parole and work permits.
“They are confused and concerned about what to do,” she said.
In Afghanistan, Chakhansuri worked as an officer in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, putting her at risk of harm from the Taliban. Last year she relocated to Los Angeles, married, and gave birth to a baby boy. She and her husband started the Salaam Family Foundation to teach English online to Afghan girls in Afghanistan, where they are barred from education.
She tries to help other Afghan evacuees, whose skills can vary widely. Many know little English and don’t have money to hire immigration lawyers. Even with money, figuring out the application system can be daunting.
“Most of these refugees are not familiar about how to file asylum or hire attorneys,” she said, “and the fees for attorneys are high.”