One way the U.S. can stand with Afghan women: pass the Afghan Adjustment Act

Teresa Casale
Teresa Casale
September 23, 2022
Photo credit: Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security

The Afghan Adjustment Act already has bipartisan, bicameral, and strong public support – a new report from More in Common indicates that 75% of people are in favor of such legislation. Now, we must pressure Congress to act. Call on Congress to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act by clicking here.

A bipartisan group of legislators recently introduced the Afghan Adjustment Act (AAA) in Congress – a bill that, if passed, would create a path to permanent legal status for Afghans evacuated to the United States. This legislation also has the potential to be life-changing for the tens of thousands of Afghans – including many women leaders, activists, and human rights defenders (HRDs) – who are currently stuck in third countries but are eligible to come to the United States. The AAA would also create a task force charged with reviewing and assessing the U.S.’ current strategy for supporting at-risk Afghans still in Afghanistan. This could shed a critical light on what isn’t working – and how it can be remedied going forward.

Since Kabul fell last year, more than 76,000 Afghans have been welcomed into the U.S. – the vast majority under the legal mechanism of humanitarian parole. This fast-track system allows Afghans to be admitted into the country quickly and enables them to stay in the U.S. for up to two years, but does not guarantee them “a path to lawful permanent residence or eventual citizenship.” As a result, many Afghans could face losing their ability to live and work in the U.S. once the two-year limit expires. Even if Afghan evacuees meet the criteria required to be a refugee – which most do – they cannot claim refugee status due to their entry under humanitarian parole, leaving them with fewer legal rights than those who entered under the more traditionally used U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. 

As it currently stands, parolees can only obtain permanent residency in the U.S. by seeking asylum or gaining Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) status, if eligible. Both processes are beset by long processing times, logistical obstacles, and backlogs of tens of thousands of cases. As the International Rescue Committee has pointed out, the process of seeking asylum alone is “lengthy and complex, and exceedingly difficult to navigate without the assistance of a specialized lawyer.” Processing takes 18-24 months at minimum – often much longer – and asylum claims must be supported by evidence such as identification documents, professional certifications, and other documentation that many Afghans were advised to destroy for security reasons when they fled their country.

On the other hand, the SIV program – designed to grant permanent status in the U.S. to Afghan citizens who worked directly with the U.S. government’s 20-year mission in Afghanistan – has strict eligibility criteria skewed toward those who worked under military contract, effectively prioritizing Afghan men and their dependents. As a result, only an estimated 6-10% of SIV primary applicants are women. This has left thousands of Afghan women who are at risk of Taliban reprisals because of their own work as women’s rights activists, political leaders, or human rights defenders without viable pathways to safety. 

Afghan women stuck in third countries have little support and face barriers to processing their applications, accessing healthcare, and in some cases face threats, persecution, and sexual violence. Meanwhile those paroled in the U.S. on humanitarian grounds have been left in a state of “legal limbo” – uncertain about their future and prospects for long term employment, healthcare, and education for their children, as well a host of other factors necessary for building a stable life. 

The AAA was introduced in Congress in August. If passed, it will be a welcome step towards remedying some of the damage caused by a system that has done little to help Afghan women leaders find safety and permanent resettlement in the U.S.

Mina’s List spoke with two of the few Afghan women leaders who were evacuated to the U.S. last fall – Executive Director of the Afghan Women’s Network (AWN) Mary Akrami, and women’s rights leader Roshan Mashal, both long-time partners of Mina’s List – about their experiences since evacuation and what the passage of the AAA would mean to them.

Read their interviews below.

Mina’s List (ML): Many Afghan women who left following the Taliban takeover are still stuck in third countries, waiting in limbo for their applications to be processed, with lengthy delays. Have you heard from women in your network about what this experience has been like for them? What are some of the challenges they face?

Mary Akrami (MA): Some of my colleagues and one of my sisters are still in Albania [awaiting resettlement]. They are waiting and waiting – it has been a very, very long procedure. Some of them have been separated from their families. Right now, I have my nieces and my nephew with me in the U.S., but their parents – my brother and my sister – are in Albania. They’ve met all the requirements and had everything done – health checks, biometrics – but still haven’t received any response from the U.S. about how long they will have to wait for their cases to be processed.

Many Afghans don't know what is next. They don’t know when or where they will be resettled, and when their case will be moved forward. Even those of us who have made it to the U.S., like my family – we are still only surviving. Adjusting is a struggle and you have to find your own way. There is a huge difference between life here and what our life was like back in Afghanistan. What makes it so difficult is that so many Afghans who were evacuated by the U.S. had left the country with the expectation that they would be coming to a new life. They left their homes, their lives – they left everything behind, which was incredibly difficult. But they had hope that they would be safely resettled. Yet, for so many people, that hasn’t been the case.

When we talk about those moments and the evacuation, it just takes me back to that day. It was not easy to leave the house. It was not easy to enter the airport. It was not easy to leave everything behind, with only the hope of being resettled and having a future. That future is still very unclear. It's really difficult.

Roshan Mashal (RM): Unfortunately, most women, especially women activists, journalists, judges, attorneys, and other public and political leaders, as well as former government employees, are now stuck in third countries with very few resources. When the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan, the central bank ceased its activities and bank accounts were closed. People suddenly had no access to their money, and were forced to leave the country with nothing. For some, the little money they managed to bring has been spent on housing, food, clothes – necessities to take care of their families while they are stuck in third countries, with no idea about their future. And for many of them, their visas will be ending after six months or a year. It’s a huge concern.

There are also so many challenges facing Afghans when they first arrive in the U.S. One of the most significant ones is education. Resettlement organizations didn't do anything for older children to help them enroll in higher education like college or university. This was a major concern for many families. We escaped from Afghanistan where the Taliban banned our daughters from attending high school [and, effectively, university]. They banned women from their places of work. We hoped in a new country there would be opportunities for girls and young women to continue their education and go on to find jobs, but this was not necessarily the case.

ML: If passed, the Afghan Adjustment Act would establish a pathway to permanent legal status for all Afghans rebuilding their lives in the U.S. It would also help with backlogs for people applying to enter the U.S. from third countries – which is the experience of many women leaders. What would the passage of this bill mean for you personally and for other Afghans trying to rebuild their lives?

MA: As a woman who had been working closely with the State Department and with U.S.-based women’s rights organizations for the last 20 years in Afghanistan, it’s really difficult to accept the position we are in. It’s the responsibility of the U.S. to provide assistance in resettling us, which is why the Afghan Adjustment Act is so important.

I also think the Afghan Adjustment Act could be one of the best ways to provide opportunities for young people, especially young women, who have left their country – left everything – to establish themselves in their new country. It will be especially important for the younger generations if it can help them gain legal status in order to continue their education and find employment.

RM: Afghan women lost everything. [When the Taliban seized control] women were set back hundreds of years. They lost every individual achievement and the freedoms they had gained through countless sacrifices. Today, it feels like they’re starting at ground zero. The Afghan Adjustment Act would provide much-needed support for them to begin rebuilding their lives, and not feel like they have nothing.

For myself and other activists [who left the country], the AAA has another value in that, by granting permanent status and relieving the daily anxiety of uncertainty, it will give us the ability to continue our advocacy work and our lobbying for Afghan women's rights [especially by being able to travel again]. Every day, the situation for women and girls inside Afghanistan is getting worse. We have a duty to help ensure their rights and their freedoms inside of Afghanistan. We must advocate for them and be a voice for them. The passage of the Afghan Adjustment Act would be a huge value for our women’s movement, which is so important given the situation for women and girls in Afghanistan today.

ML: The Afghan Adjustment Act would also establish a task force to review the U.S. government’s policy related to Afghan evacuees and assess its effectiveness. What would you want this task force to prioritize?

MA: Afghans are facing so many challenges and difficulties because of their immigration status – I want the Afghan Adjustment Act to be passed as soon as possible [to help alleviate this issue]. There is an expectation that the U.S. is meant to be helping Afghans and facilitating their resettlement, and this must start with helping them gain permanent status. I want to see the U.S. meet the expectations it has set [in terms of supporting its Afghan allies] and hope its policies will reflect that.

RM: The U.S. government’s policies didn't prioritize women's rights activists, leaders, and defenders, leaving them in uncertain and vulnerable situations. I would like the task force to prioritize the protection and support of women leaders, activists, and defenders inside Afghanistan, in third countries, and inside the U.S. As you know, women in Afghanistan are protesting [against the Taliban and defending] human and women’s rights. In doing so they are facing torture, arrest, and prison, and there aren’t any protection mechanisms for them. I would like the task force to make supporting women human rights defenders inside Afghanistan a priority. I would also like it to prioritize the resettlement of those stuck in third countries, who are continuing to suffer. And I want the task force to prioritize providing pathways to citizenship or resettlement for women leaders and women's rights activists as soon as possible because there is an urgent need for them to continue their work. [With citizenship and the right to live and work in the U.S.] they could manage and organize their lobbying and advocacy efforts, and continue their important work.

ML: What should the U.S. and other countries be doing to help the safe evacuation and resettlement of Afghan women political leaders and human rights defenders in particular?

MA: The handling of the evacuation by the U.S. was not something that [Afghans] requested. I think that all international allies who were involved in Afghanistan should have coordinated among themselves and worked toward a common goal. As an advocate, I often ask the question, ‘Why were we evacuated?’ There are still so many people left behind in Afghanistan – for example, so many of the people I worked with in my organization – these people worked to serve women, promote women's rights and democracy, and advocate for peace. I was not alone. I had more than 165 members of staff. Why have most of those women and men been left behind with their lives in danger?

Most people in Afghanistan and in third countries are waiting without any clear indication about what their future holds. In fact, there is little clarity on their current situation, and they don't know what to do. It is not easy. Talking about these issues is easy. But when you experience it every day it is very difficult.

RM: I'm calling on the U.S. government and the international community: Don't forget Afghanistan. Support and protect women in Afghanistan, and ensure that they are allowed to go to school, go to work, have freedom of speech and freedom of movement, freedom to pursue their education. Our demand, our desire, and our request from the international community is to provide serious attention to women and girls inside Afghanistan, because they need help and they should not be forgotten.

Call on Congress to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act by clicking here.

Teresa Casale
Teresa Casale
Executive Director