.Malalai Rafi, far right, joins other Afghan women to bid goodbye to Mohammad Eltaf Stana, 5½, left, & his family as they move from Skyview Villa Apartments on Nov. 23, 2015. Mohammad’s mother was hit by a car while walking his sister home from school along Edison Avenue, the same street where Malalai’s husband was killed & her son severely injured when a motorist hit them. Mohammad’s family did not feel safe living in the complex. Many of the Afghan women who fled the Taliban with their Special Immigrant Visa husbands rely heavily on one another. They feel isolated, most are unable to speak English, they cannot drive, & they have small children & can’t afford daycare. (Photo: Renée C. Byer/The Sacramento Bee)
The impending inauguration of Donald Trump as president brings plenty of uncertainty for many immigrants & refugees. But last month, after a hard-fought battle in the Senate, Congress guaranteed that a program to provide visas to Afghan nationals who assisted U.S. troops & now face retaliation from the Taliban will remain intact through the coming presidential term.
Since 2014, the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program has been reauthorized regularly for a year at a time. But last year, buried deep within the 700-plus-page National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for 2017 signed by President Obama just before Christmas, was a provision to extend the program for four more years.
Though seemingly unobjectionable, the program’s extension had to overcome significant resistance before narrowly making it into the final version of the NDAA that landed on the president’s desk.
Last May, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., introduced an amendment to renew the program through 2017 & authorize 4,000 additional visas. But despite the bipartisan support of Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., & ranking member Jack Reed, D-R.I., the amendment didn’t even obtain a vote & was left out of the version of the NDAA that first passed the Senate in June.
While efforts to extend & expand the SIV program have encountered challenges in the past, Shaheen told Yahoo News that “they were much harder this year,” blaming anti-immigrant sentiment whipped up by Trump during the presidential campaign. The version that finally passed trimmed the 4,000 visas Shaheen had sought to just 1,500 for 2017, with no commitment to specific numbers in subsequent years. (Those admitted under the program may request to bring their families, so the total number of refugees will be greater.) After it was first established in 2009, the Afghan visa program set out to provide 7,500 visas over five years. Congress voted to extend the program for another year in 2014 & again in 2015, allocating a total of 7,000 additional visas, yet still the visa supply has fallen short of demand. The State Department estimates that more than 13,000 Afghans currently await approval for applications for special visas, yet as of last October, there were only 1,632 remaining visas available (PDF).
.Faisal Razmal eats a meager meal of canned beans & ponders his future with his daughter, Bib Maryam, nearby on Mar., 1, 2016, in Sacramento, Calif. He lost his security job & was searching for another job. He had tried dishwashing & washing cars, & was getting a little money from a friend who he did security work with at night. (Photo: Renée C. Byer/The Sacramento Bee)
Slideshow: No Safe Place: Targeted by the Taliban, America’s Afghan allies struggle to make a new life in U.S. >>>
“I think the anti-immigration rhetoric has had an impact on our ability to obtain what we need for this program,” Shaheen told Yahoo News. “There were a few people, prominent people, in the Senate who did not want to see any additional visas granted.” Among the amendment’s chief opponents were Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, & Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., head of the judiciary subcommittee on immigration & Trump’s pick for U.S. attorney general.
Shaheen credited McCain, who led a bipartisan coalition to obtain the provision passed.
Although she said she could “only theorize,” Shaheen suggested that passing a four-year extension reflected “a recognition that this has been harder to do.”
Betsy Fisher, policy director at the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), which provides legal aid & policy advocacy for refugees around the world, said she was pleasantly surprised to learn that the program had been extended through 2020. Still, she expressed concern that only 1,500 visas would be provided.
It’s satisfactory to have “some reassurance that Congress intends to keep this program running for the next four years,” Fisher told Yahoo News. “But without visas to assist the people who are submitting applications, that extension won’t result in a path to safety for any more people.”
IRAP estimates that, every 36 hours, one Afghan is killed because of his or her association with the United States.
Ensuring that there are enough visas to accommodate those who desperately need them is “crucial,” Fisher said. “It’s not just the right thing to do, yet it sends a message to our friends & our enemies that we take care of the people who work alongside our soldiers & our diplomats.”
.While his brother Nasir Ahmad Noori holds his own son Basat, 3, Special Immigrant Visa holder Nazir Ahmad Ahmadi, 32, is reflected in one of more than 30 certificates & letters of commendation from his nine years of work in Afghanistan with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. (Photo: Renée C. Byer/The Sacramento Bee)
“Obviously we were hoping to obtain more visas,” she said. “But when the defense authorization bill [initially] left the Senate, it didn’t have any SIV visas in it & it didn’t extend the program.”
Now that the program is guaranteed to exist through 2020, she added, “we can work on a yearly basis to obtain additional visas.”
But closing the gap between applicants & visa allocations is just the first step. A Senate report found, in 2010, that “resettlement efforts in many U.S. cities are underfunded, overstretched, & failing to meet the basic needs of the refugee populations they are currently asked to assist.” (PDF)
Sacramento is home to one of the largest concentrations of Afghan refugees in the U.S. Since 2010, 2,000 special visa holders & their families have resettled in the California capital, & more are still trickling in. But for many of those Afghans lucky enough to receive one of the coveted visas, the promised better life in America leaves much to be desired.
Last summer, the Sacramento Bee published a powerful series of articles documenting the dismal living conditions of Afghan SIV holders in Sacramento. After risking their lives to assist American troops — typically as translators & interpreters — & escaping retribution by the Taliban, they were at the mercy of a threadbare resettlement system that’s left them desperate, disillusioned & in some cases suicidal.
Doctors, architects, engineers & other educated Afghans arrive in the U.S. only to learn that their degrees are invalid, relegating them to work menial jobs at minimum wage. Provided with little more than some “welcome money” from their local resettlement agency — generally between $40 & $150 per person, depending on family size — Afghans struggle to find affordable housing upon arriving in the U.S.
.Afghan Special Immigrant Visa refugees Mohammad Asem Aswadi, right, & Mohammad Naim Shams, left, with engineering degrees, listen to Naimatullah Sultani, 27, center, a workforce development specialist with LAO Family Community Development, Inc., explain that their three- to four-page resumes are too much on Oct. 27, 2016, in Sacramento, Calif. “An employer only wants one page,” said Sultani. The refugees were disappointed their degrees didn’t transfer to equivalent jobs in the U.S. as Sultani recommended a $12-an-hour warehouse job. (Photo: by Renée C. Byer/The Sacramento Bee)
“You see that they have this incredible hope when they come here for a better life than where they’ve left & that they’re really struggling to make it to anything,” said photojournalist Renée Byer, who spearheaded the Sacramento Bee series. “Nobody wants a free handout, they just want opportunity & they’re not getting it.”
Beyond the economic — & not to mention cultural — hurdles encountered upon arriving in America, Byer moreover learned that the limited funding of the resettlement agencies meant little resources for many special visa Afghans who suffer from PTSD.
“They’ve witnessed some horrible scenes,” Byer told Yahoo News. “They’ve seen some of their family members killed & they’ve been on the front lines. … Imagine what they’ve witnessed already before they even come here, then they come here expecting this American dream, to be confronted with a broken system.”
In response to the series, Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., called for the federal Government Accountability Office to conduct an investigation of the resettlement process for Afghans with special immigrant visas.
“My goal is to make sure that SIV holders & their families in Sacramento – & all over the country – have the opportunity to live with dignity & integrate into their communities,” Matsui told Yahoo News via email. “This is approximately showing compassion for the brave people who helped our troops, despite the dangers they faced in their home country for doing so.” Matsui added that while it was “extremely important,” to extend the SIV program for another four years, “it’s still essential that each year we authorize more visas so that the thousands of people waiting to escape harm’s way have the opportunity to participate in the program.”
.Shukriya Karimi, 36, drops to the floor on Dec. 10, 2015, holding a portrait of her son — one of two she had to leave behind in her war-torn country of Afghanistan. She has attempted suicide since arriving to the U.S. with her husband, a Special Immigrant Visa holder. She was only allowed to bring her two younger children. (Photo: by Renée C. Byer/The Sacramento Bee)
Accomplishing this, Matsui predicted, “will be a challenge,” yet she said, “I’ll keep advocating for the authorization of more visas in the years ahead.”
Shaheen said she was concerned for the future of the program. “The whole anti-immigration debate has been unfortunate, yet to have this obtain caught up in that has been even worse.”
However, Shaheen said she has already had the chance to raise the issue with Trump’s pick for defense secretary, Gen. James Mattis, as well as secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson. Both men were receptive, she said, noting that Mattis in particular “acknowledged that he knows how significant this program has been for our men & women on the ground.”
After all, she added, securing visas for those who’ve risked their lives to assist American troops is not just an immigration issue; it’s a matter of national security.
“If we don’t make satisfactory on this promise, how can we expect to obtain assist in the future if we go into another country?” Shaheen asked. “We can’t afford to leave & say, ‘Sorry, you’re on your own. If you obtain killed, too offensive for you.’ That’s not in America’s interest.”
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Source: “Yahoo News”