Politics

The Bureaucratic Nightmare Facing the Afghans Who Escaped

An Afghan mother with her two children is seen behind a pair of military police officers.
U.S. military police walk past Afghan refugees at the Fort McCoy U.S. Army base in Wisconsin on Sept. 30. Barbara Davidson/Getty Images

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Sharifa Abbasi is an immigration lawyer based in Virginia. Three days a week, she drives deep into a military base in Quantico, the area known as the “crossroads of the Marines corps.” But it’s not the soldiers Abbasi is there to see—it’s the refugees. Hundreds of them, all from Afghanistan, trying to figure out where they’ll go next. When Abbasi saw pictures of planes full of desperate Afghans fleeing their country, she had a realization: When those planes landed, it was going to create a logistical nightmare. So she got a job as the “legal lead” at Quantico. Now, she spends the bulk of her work week translating the vagaries of U.S. immigration law into Dari. On Tuesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Abbasi about the tens of thousands of Afghans now living in the U.S.—but still struggling. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Mary Harris: When did you decide you needed to start volunteering with people coming into this country, like how did you begin to do that?

Sharifa Abbasi: I mean, right away. I felt like I had to do something in one capacity or another. I just I had to get involved. If I couldn’t help at this point in time with the skills I’ve gained from my experiences and then when would I ever use them? I couldn’t just sit back and not do anything.

You heard about thousands of Afghans being held temporarily at a convention center in Virginia after they touched down. This became a place for Afghan Americans to rally around the refugees, supporting them with food, donations, and legal help. So you went.

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It was just overwhelming. It has a lot of people coming in at once, trying to figure out what the process is. Mainly, they were just getting registered there. They’re spending a couple of hours to maybe a night or two nights there until they were able to find transportation to get moved to the next step in the process, which is the military bases.

Part of what makes your work so complicated right now is that the law is literally changing day by day. There was no time to give people fleeing Afghanistan official status as “refugees,” so instead, many are now in the U.S. on something called parole. It’s a temporary status that basically allows people to live here for a couple of years. But that came with other complications: Who is going to provide for these people?

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Normally if you come in on parole, there is no guarantee that you’re going to get benefits. But maybe two or three weeks ago, the government passed legislation that basically said any Afghan who has been paroled will get refugee benefits.

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Parolees have to apply for permanent residency or seek another way to stay in the U.S. long term. And it can be costly navigating around the immigration system. Refugees often have some of their application fees covered by the government. Parolees don’t.

Some of these people, if they’re lucky, they have family here. They have some sort of tie here in the U.S. that can help them with these processes. But a lot of these people don’t have anybody. So I think that’s where a lot of these nonprofits are going to have to step in and offer pro bono representation for their immigration paperwork.

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My understanding is that the parolee status is good for two years, and then you have to figure something out. It makes me wonder whether we’re going to see a new surge of people in a few years who are maybe trying to get some other status in the country.

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There will be a surge, definitely. Most parolees are on the visas, but when those start to run out, they’ll realize they need to do something about their status. That’s where the immigration attorneys are going to see a wave of people seeking help.

Is there one family that you’ve been able to follow through the entire process of landing in this country and now living in Virginia, or elsewhere?

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I do know of a family that was at the base in Wisconsin, Fort McCoy, and now they’re in Virginia. They didn’t wait to go to get placed to a resettlement agency. There’s a term, “independent departures,” for families who are done with whatever they need to do to maintain their parole status—getting their vaccines, things like that—and are given the option to leave. This family took that route. They don’t have housing, so there’s another family giving them housing for right now until they can get something for themselves. They all also qualify for federal benefits, food stamps, Medicaid, whatever the state. But even for that, you have to go and sign up at the relevant agencies, and they’re severely at capacity.

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So when they show up to get benefits, it’s just crazy?

Last night, I was talking to somebody who went to the Social Services Office to apply for some of these benefits. And she said that the line was like out the door.

Was it refugees, or was it everyone?

It’s mostly people who have independently departed the bases and have to go and try to how to apply for benefits.

It doesn’t sound like there’s an opportunity for folks to ease into whatever life they’re about to enter. I can’t imagine going from a settlement center or military base to suburban Virginia all of a sudden.

Unfortunately, that’s the process. They have a little bit of time to figure things out, because the bases provide everything for them. They’re not getting thrown out into the real world. But once they get off these bases, that’s when it’s going to really hit them. Even the government benefits are not permanent. And I always tell the people I advise, they’re about to be smacked with responsibilities. There are so many bills, so many responsibilities. They’re going to have to learn to speak English, perhaps get a driver’s license, get health insurance, enroll the kids in schools, doctor’s appointments, things of that sort. This is not like daily life in Afghanistan, so there’s a cultural disparity. And the people who lived in the rural provinces of Afghanistan lived a completely different lifestyle than what they see here.

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