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Afghans who were evacuated to the U.S. navigate a complicated immigration system

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

It's been nearly two years since the U.S. withdrew all troops from Afghanistan.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Deadly scenes of panic at the airport.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Thousands of Afghans now scrambling to get out.

RASCOE: And as some Afghans were evacuated to the U.S., many had to navigate a complicated immigration system - specifically humanitarian parole. Journalist Lauren DeLaunay Miller brings us a story of one woman stuck in that system.

LAUREN DELAUNAY MILLER, BYLINE: Mina Bakhshi's evacuation from Kabul involved a long bus ride in the middle of the night, two flights and 16 weeks spent in three different refugee staging areas. But when Mina finally arrived at a military base in New Jersey in October of 2021, she was asked a question that she hadn't been asked before - what is your case number?

MINA BAKHSHI: And I said, I literally don't know what you're talking about, and I don't think I have any case number. And that's when they told me that I'm a parolee.

DELAUNAY MILLER: But what did that even mean?

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BAKHSHI: We had lots of questions on our mind. Like, OK, when will we get our green card? How long will it take for us? Are we able to go to university? Or what are the benefits we'll get? And we were using the term, like, refugee for ourselves. But they were like, OK, it's parole. You should not expect to get your green card soon.

DELAUNAY MILLER: The majority of Afghan refugees admitted to the U.S. since August of 2021 have arrived on a program called humanitarian parole. That's about 77,000 Afghans who believed they would be targets of the Taliban government - activists who had worked on behalf of women's rights or human rights, journalists, artists and university students and also young women like Mina who feared their lives would change dramatically under Taliban rule. In Afghanistan, Mina had been planning to go to university, and she was a mountain climber. When the Taliban took over, Mina couldn't see a future for herself anymore. She didn't know if she'd be able to attend university or to keep climbing because the Taliban didn't support education or sports for women and girls.

So she fled. And Mina has now spent nearly two years in the U.S. on humanitarian parole. She identifies as a refugee, but unlike those with official refugee status, parolees' stay in the U.S. is temporary, and there's no guaranteed pathway to lawful permanent residency in the U.S. When I first met Mina last year and I learned about her evacuation, I'd never heard of parole. So I started to wonder - what is the purpose of parole? And where did it come from? I reached out to a historian to try and understand.

CARL BON TEMPO: Carl Bon Tempo, associate professor of history at the University at Albany, SUNY.

DELAUNAY MILLER: Carl has written extensively about the history of American immigration and refugee policy and how it's evolved over the course of the 20th century. And he told me that the history of parole begins over 60 years ago during the Cold War.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The Iron Curtain slammed down to block off all communication with the West. Hungary pays a shocking price for a brief moment of liberty and hope.

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DELAUNAY MILLER: During the Hungarian refugee crisis of 1956, 200,000 people left Hungary. It was the biggest refugee emergency in Europe since World War II. President Eisenhower's administration was eager to support refugees, but he was limited by America's own strict immigration quotas. Carl Bon Tempo again.

BON TEMPO: The national origins quota immigration system said that you could only grant about 800 visas per year to people from Hungary. Eight hundred visas would do nothing to help tens of thousands of Hungarians. It's a literal drop in the bucket. What can the U.S. government do? The Eisenhower administration is searching around for a legal vehicle to bring the Hungarians to the United States. The vehicle they hit upon is the parole power.

DELAUNAY MILLER: Buried in the 120-page immigration bill of 1952 was one provision, and this would change the American immigration system forever.

BON TEMPO: The attorney general can admit individuals to the United States on an emergent basis, meaning that those individuals could bypass basically all of the immigration controls that were in place.

DELAUNAY MILLER: Parole power was designed to provide wiggle room for emergencies. Lawmakers were aware that, sometimes, people would have to come to the U.S. quickly.

BON TEMPO: Speed the entry of folks who might need, like, emergency medical care or something like that. And it was definitely seen as something that would be used on a case-by-case basis.

DELAUNAY MILLER: But the Eisenhower administration interpreted that line as a way to grant emergency entry for tens of thousands of refugees. Within two years, it became clear that Hungarian refugees weren't returning to communist-controlled Hungary. In 1958, President Eisenhower asked Congress to pass the Hungarian Adjustment Act.

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DWIGHT D EISENHOWER: I request the Congress promptly to enact legislation to regularize the status in the United States of Hungarian refugees brought here as parolees.

DELAUNAY MILLER: It would allow every Hungarian paroled into the U.S. a pathway to permanent residency and eventually citizenship. And that's how humanitarian parole got started - because President Eisenhower's team reinterpreted a line in an immigration bill to save Hungarians. And this happens a few more times.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: This was the scene of turmoil in the capital, Havana.

DELAUNAY MILLER: Following the Cuban Revolution of 1959, about a million Cubans came to the U.S. - most of them on parole.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Those South Vietnamese not lucky enough to have been chosen for evacuation defied the curfew and stood outside the embassy gate, begging for a seat on the helicopters.

DELAUNAY MILLER: And again, in 1975, after the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. troops during the fall of Saigon, about 170,000 Vietnamese entered the U.S. as parolees.

BON TEMPO: And so this is the pattern then that is set. You parole the newcomers in, and then a few years after that, you pass an adjustment act that provides a pathway to permanent residence.

DELAUNAY MILLER: But this ad hoc system for admitting refugees was disorganized, and legislators on both sides of the aisle wanted to formalize the process. So in 1980, Congress passed the Refugee Act to create a whole new refugee admission system separate from the immigration system. And with this new system in place, for the next few decades, parole more or less went back to its original and limited usage. For a few decades, it seemed like parole's big moment was mostly over - until 2021.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Last night in Kabul, the United States ended 20 years of war in Afghanistan. The longest war...

BON TEMPO: The problem you run into in the 21st century is speed. And the process by which one obtains a Refugee Act visa is anything but quick.

DELAUNAY MILLER: It goes without saying that a slow process isn't an option for refugees whose lives have changed overnight, but it can take years to get through the refugee system. And so Biden, like Eisenhower, sought a way to get around our backlogged refugee admission system.

BON TEMPO: And parole seems to be a very good option.

DELAUNAY MILLER: But here is where the Afghan situation breaks from history. In August of 2022, Senator Amy Klobuchar, along with a bipartisan group of senators, introduced the Afghan Adjustment Act.

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AMY KLOBUCHAR: It is our responsibility to provide these Afghan refugees with the assurance that they can stay here and rebuild their lives.

KLOBUCHAR: The Afghan Adjustment Act would provide a path to permanent status for parolees while expanding pathways for Afghans left behind. But the bill is stalled in Congress, and it's facing a steep uphill battle.

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TED CRUZ: But you also brought in tens of thousands of Afghans who had wholly inadequate vetting.

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RON JOHNSON: We have to understand there is a danger to this country.

DELAUNAY MILLER: The idea of vetting keeps coming up as opponents' main objection to the bill. Bipartisan supporters of the bill point to the extensive background checks that are already required. A revised bill was introduced this spring with increased security measures, but it still hasn't gained enough Republican support. In lieu of an Adjustment Act, parolees' primary option for achieving permanent status is through applying for asylum. And that's something Mina's been working on. But her immigration lawyer told her that the process could take years.

BAKHSHI: It's hard to live a life temporarily, and now I have no control over my life. It's other people in high positions deciding for my life.

DELAUNAY MILLER: According to the latest data from Syracuse University, the average wait time for an asylum case is currently four years, and the backlog of asylum cases in the U.S. is over 900,000. There have been no updates on Mina's asylum application since her asylum interview in December of 2022.

BAKHSHI: I think the day that I hear back from the government, whether they accept me or they will not - that moment will be the time that I think of my long-term future in this country.

DELAUNAY MILLER: This August would have been the two-year mark when the parole program for Afghans would start to expire. But this spring, President Biden extended parole for Afghans. So now Mina has two more years of safety but also two more years of uncertainty. As Mina's asylum case winds its way through backlogged immigration courts, the fight for the Afghan Adjustment Act is ongoing. And this week, Mina moved to Swarthmore to start school. She went knowing that her parole status could expire during her sophomore year.

BAKHSHI: But I don't know. I - for now, I kind of don't want to think ahead of what will happen. I want to enjoy, like, my college life and to find, you know, my community.

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RASCOE: That was journalist Lauren DeLaunay Miller reporting. At the end of July, the sponsors of the Afghan Adjustment Act tried to include it in the National Defense Authorization Act, which authorizes funding for the Defense Department. But that was blocked by Republicans, who have introduced a separate Adjustment Act - one that would significantly reduce the president's parole powers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Lauren DeLaunay Miller