Bill to Keep Government from Shutting Down Leaves Out Afghan Refugees Despite Vet Protest

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Soldier entertains Afghan children during Operation Allies Welcome, Germany.
Sgt. 1st Class Aaron Shaw, part of the joint security force at Rhine Ordnance Barracks in Kaiserslautern, Germany, during Operation Allies Welcome, Sept. 30, 2021. (U.S. Army photo by Eleanor Prohaska)

A must-pass bill to fund the government beyond the end of the week does not include a pathway for Afghan refugees to become permanent U.S. residents despite veterans holding a sit-in outside the Capitol building for nearly two weeks.

The short-term funding bill, known as a continuing resolution, or CR, left out what's being called the Afghan Adjustment Act, which would provide a streamlined way for Afghans who were evacuated after the fall of Kabul last year to become legal permanent residents.

Meanwhile, the CR does include about $12 billion to support Ukraine in its ongoing war against Russian invaders, including $2.8 billion for U.S. European Command operations that were bulked up at the start of the war.

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Supporters of the Afghan Adjustment Act acknowledged Tuesday that including it in the CR was a long shot. But they are now setting their sights on two other must-pass bills: the annual defense policy bill or the government funding bill that will have to pass in December when the CR expires.

"This needs to be passed as soon as possible so vetting could start and also those Afghans who are in limbo, they could look into the future and see a light at the end of the tunnel," said Safi Rauf, a Navy reservist helping lead the protest at the Capitol who was held captive by the Taliban earlier this year after helping Afghans flee. "Right now, it's uncertainty after uncertainty."

"The fact that it wasn't part of the CR is very disappointing, and it means that we'll continue to be fighting for the next many months to come," Rauf added.

For 13 days, veterans and Afghan refugees have camped out all day and night on the lawn in front of the Capitol building, calling on Congress to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act.

The protest, which the group is calling a "fire watch," mirrors veterans' successful effort in pushing for the passage of the PACT Act, the sweeping veterans toxic exposure legislation that became law last month. The Afghan Adjustment Act fire watch has not become as much of a media sensation as the PACT Act protest, but it has been picking up steam, including getting visits from lawmakers. Jon Stewart, the comedian turned veterans advocate who threw his weight behind the PACT Act, also stopped by Tuesday afternoon.

Most of the 78,000 Afghans brought to the United States in 2021 during the U.S. military's frantic evacuation after Kabul fell to the Taliban were admitted to the country under a temporary status known as humanitarian parole.

Parole does not provide a pathway to apply for legal permanent resident status, commonly known as green cards. Some Afghan refugees were given two years of protection to stay in the United States, but some were given only one, meaning their parole has already expired. Parolees can apply for asylum, but that could leave them in limbo for years wrestling with an already taxed immigration system.

The Afghan Adjustment Act, which is modeled off legislation passed for refugees after previous conflicts such as the Vietnam War, seeks to address those issues by creating a streamlined process for the evacuated Afghans to get green cards. The Department of Homeland Security would also have to establish new vetting procedures for the Afghans moving through that process.

The bill also includes reforms to the Special Immigrant Visa program created for Afghans who helped the U.S. military, including expanding eligibility to certain former Afghan troops such as former commandos and women who served in the tactical platoon that supported Afghan special forces.

The bill was formally introduced in the House and Senate earlier this year on a bipartisan basis. But some Republicans have opposed it over claims Afghan refugees were not sufficiently vetted during the evacuation.

The fire watch participants have blamed one lawmaker in particular for blocking the bill from moving forward: Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over immigration issues.

In an emailed statement Tuesday, Grassley said he's heard concerns about the bill from "numerous" other members of the Judiciary Committee, as well as House members.

"In light of the administration's vetting failures of evacuees -- which we've received multiple classified briefings on -- and the fact that the scope of this bill extends far beyond the Afghan allies for whom we already have a longstanding green card program, there are legitimate reasons for these hesitations," he said. "Clearly, this type of legislation needs to go through regular order with broad discussion and input. Nevertheless, some benefits will be extended in the interim."

While the CR does not include the Afghan Adjustment Act, it does include some aid related to Afghan refugee resettlement. Specifically, it would transfer $3 billion in Pentagon funding to the State Department for continued Afghan resettlement operations. It would also extend eligibility for food assistance and other refugee benefits for Afghan parolees for the length of the CR.

The CR, which is needed to keep the government open when current funding expires after Friday, would last until Dec. 16. Typically, a CR just extends existing funding levels, but lawmakers can include new funding for urgent matters.

Among the new funding in the CR released by Democratic leaders Monday night is the aid for the war in Ukraine, which started seven months ago when Russia launched a full-scale invasion of its neighbor.

While U.S. troops are not fighting in Ukraine, the U.S. military presence in Europe swelled to more than 100,000 ahead of the war. The $2.8 billion in the CR for the U.S. military operations in Europe would go toward "mission support, intelligence support, special duty pay for troops deployed to the region and equipment," according to a summary from House Appropriations Committee Democrats.

The CR also includes $3 billion for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, the U.S. program to train and buy new weapons for Ukrainian forces. It also includes the authority to send another $3.7 billion worth of weapons from U.S. stockpiles to Ukraine, on top of the more than $9 billion from U.S. stockpiles that has already been sent.

While the Ukraine aid has bipartisan support and is of little political value to shut down the government weeks before the November elections, Congress is expected to come down to the wire in passing the CR because of political fighting over federal permitting for energy projects and reforms to the environmental review process.

Meanwhile, supporters of the Afghan Adjustment Act have vowed not to let up pressure until it passes. They are debating whether to continue camping outside the Capitol when Congress is on recess in October or to focus on encouraging allies to visit lawmakers' district offices.

"We still get messages from people who want to be evacuated," Joseph Azam, board chair for the Afghan-American Foundation, said at the fire watch. "The compact that the U.S. had with them is still intact. They're reaching on the basis of understanding that promises were made on both sides. They kept up their end of the bargain. ... So if the U.S. signals that the compact is completely broken, I think that's a really dangerous thing to do."

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at rebecca.kheel@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

Related: Veterans Hold Another Round-the-Clock Protest Outside Capitol for Afghan Refugee Bill

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