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Afghan Arrivals Need Legal Assistance

September 24, 2021

The U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan has precipitated an urgent humanitarian crisis, as tens of thousands of people have begun arriving in the United States. 

The speed at which the crisis has unfolded has left all sectors struggling to provide emergency assistance and countless individuals eager to help. There is no national coordinated volunteer response and no centralized mechanism for ensuring that legal needs on base or at the next step will be met. While some federal dollars have begun to flow, they do not provide for the immigration legal needs of the arriving population.

Further complicating the situation, people arriving have a variety of immigration legal statuses. The vast majority of those arriving on base have entered with "humanitarian parole," a temporary status that leaves people with no clear path to obtain green cards or citizenship. It is possible that Congress will enact special legislation so Afghans in the United States can apply for green cards. As of now, however, no special law has been passed and, even if it does, it is unclear who it will protect.

It is critical that people understand the expiration date of their parole or other temporary status, know the deadlines for filing for asylum, and identify other immigration options they may have to move quickly to a stable permanent immigration status. Without this, people risk falling out of status, becoming undocumented, and ultimately facing deportation to Afghanistan.

Over 60,000 people are now living on military bases around the country, including more than 13,000 people at Fort McCoy, just east of the Twin Cities. Another 60,000 are at temporary holding sites - known as "lily pads" - where they await entry into the United States once the first wave have moved off base to more permanent resettlement sites.

Fort McCoy is located about 2.5 hours southeast of the Twin Cities. A small team out of Catholic Charities - Milwaukee has a federal contract to provide limited on-the-ground assistance, but the numbers of people in need far outstrip the available capacity and legal representation falls largely outside their mandate. When The Advocates' team visited Fort McCoy, we found complex legal needs, including people frantic to reunite with family members who were left behind during the evacuation. 

Of particular concern, an estimated 700 unaccompanied children currently are on base at Fort McCoy. We anticipate continuing to see unaccompanied children throughout the evacuation. The federal immigration system provides no legal assistance to unaccompanied children, who must file immigration paperwork and appear at interviews on their own.

Reports of domestic and sexual violence on base at Fort McCoy already have begun to emerge. Women on base and in resettlement housing must know their immigration legal options so that they are able to leave violent relationships or other dangerous situations.

Beginning October 2021, Minnesota expects to resettle up to 2,000 Afghans in Rochester, Saint Cloud, and the Twin Cities. The Minnesota Afghan Evacuation Task Force, coordinated by the Minnesota Department of Human Services, is preparing to stand up stable temporary housing and supportive services for up to 2000 Afghans leaving bases around the country. Using a centralized housing model will allow for on-site enrollment in school and public benefits, language and employment services, and legal assistance.

As part of this response, The Advocates plans to hold regular legal clinics to provide essential in-person and remote immigration legal information to people without permanent immigration status. Volunteer legal professionals and interpreters will be essential. 

We need your support to help Afghan evacuees stabilize and thrive. Please help by donating today.