Home >Politics >Afghan refugees in the US: How they’re vetted, where they’re going and how to help

The U.S. evacuated tens of thousands of Afghans in its two-week-long airlift out of the international airport in Kabul.

Refugee resettlement organizations in the U.S. are bracing to receive many of them, while third countries around the world—from Albania to Mexico and Uganda—have agreed to accept some as well.

Here are answers to some key questions about where the Afghans go, what assistance they receive and how people can help the refugees if they choose.

How many Afghans have been evacuated?

The U.S. evacuated more than 65,000 Afghans, according to numbers provided by the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security on Wednesday. Of those, about 24,000 have arrived in the U.S. since Aug. 17. Another 23,000 are on U.S. military bases in Europe and 20,000 are in Asia.

Where are the Afghans going once they’re evacuated?

Many will eventually make it to the U.S.—refugee resettlement agencies here have been told to expect at least 50,000 Afghans—but it may take weeks or months for them to arrive as they undergo security screenings. Numerous third countries in the Middle East, Europe, Africa and Latin America have agreed to at least temporarily house some Afghans while they complete the U.S. visa process and accompanying security vetting, though the exact nature of those agreements isn’t yet clear.

Some others will live permanently in third countries. Canada, for instance, announced this week it has agreed to take on 5,000 Afghans that the U.S. evacuated as part of the 20,000 total Afghans it has said it will resettle, including those evacuated by Canada itself and by other countries.

Are Afghans vetted before they come to the U.S.?

Yes. Everyone evacuated from Afghanistan is first brought to a military base in Europe or the Middle East, where U.S. officials are collecting information—such as fingerprints and biographical details—that they are then running through criminal and terrorism-related databases. Only people whose names are cleared through that process are then allowed to board flights to the U.S., and their names are cross-checked again before they are allowed to formally enter the U.S.

In the early days of the evacuation, the cross-checking was taking so long that planes filled with Afghans were sitting on the tarmac in the U.S. for as long as 10 hours before U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials would allow anyone to get off.

What happens with Afghans once they arrive in the U.S.?

Afghans are being routed primarily through Dulles International Airport, near Washington, D.C., with some flights going to the international airport in Philadelphia. Then, depending on their legal status, they are going directly to live with family members in the U.S. or, more typically, to military bases around the country.

Refugee resettlement organizations have been recruited to greet Afghans on the military bases when they arrive. Some Afghans are waiting to undergo medical screenings, while others are connected with legal and other services and moved to their final homes.

Everyone arriving is also offered Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine, according to a DHS spokesman.

What is their legal status when they arrive?

Some Afghans are arriving with valid visas—either through a family member in the U.S. who sponsored them or through the Special Immigrant Visa program, intended for interpreters, drivers and others who worked with the U.S. military during its two-decade war in Afghanistan. Some others are arriving in the final stages of the special immigrant visa application process, and are only awaiting a medical check before getting a visa, which grants legal permanent residency in the U.S.

The majority of Afghans coming to the U.S. are either at the beginning stages of the visa process or aren’t eligible for a special immigrant visa at all, and are instead being let in on temporary humanitarian grounds using an immigration tool known as parole.

Are there any complications in bringing Afghans to the U.S. on humanitarian grounds?

Typically, when a refugee comes through the formal U.S. refugee admissions program, they receive some guaranteed assistance—everything from help finding and furnishing a home to several months of healthcare and food stamps. SIV recipients are entitled to the same resettlement benefits.

But anyone allowed into the country using parole—which the government estimates will be up to 50,000 people in coming months—isn’t legally considered a refugee and therefore doesn’t automatically have access to the same services. That poses two sets of issues.

First, they aren’t automatically eligible for any kind of resettlement assistance, meaning the agencies contracted with the government to resettle refugees must arrange help for many of the Afghans, using primarily private donations. Resettlement agencies have asked Congress to make Afghans who were paroled into the country eligible for all the same services as other refugees, though Congress hasn’t yet considered legislation to do so.

Second, anyone allowed into the country using parole can live legally in the country for two years, so they must in the meantime apply for a permanent way to stay—such as a visa through another family member or by applying for asylum. Resettlement organizations have rushed to establish a network of pro-bono lawyers and have begun connecting them to newly arriving Afghans on military bases.

What can people do to help refugees?

There are nine primary refugee resettlement agencies—the nonprofit entities that are contracted with the U.S. State Department to help settle refugees into American communities. They are often affiliated with specific religious denominations. Some of them include the International Rescue Committee, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services and World Relief. All of them are seeking out volunteers willing to assist refugees or make donations of money, goods or temporary living space. They are all also seeking out landlords willing to rent to refugees or employers who want to hire them.

These organizations also often form more formal sponsorship arrangements with religious congregations looking to support newly arriving refugees.

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