Two years after Afghan couple Bilal and Humaira resettled in San Antonio, they have welcomed a baby girl and obtained jobs helping fellow refugees adjust to Texas like they have.
But a lack of clarity about their future in the U.S. makes it difficult to plan long-term.
Two years after Bilal and Humaira were forced to leave Kabul following the evacuation of U.S. troops in Afghanistan in August 2021, the couple and thousands of Afghan refugees like them still don’t have legal status or an immediate pathway to a permanent life in the U.S.
And as they navigate the mental health challenges they sustained after the trauma of those last days in their home country, they’re waiting for a solution.
“It’s been two years,” Bilal said. “We don’t know about our future, we don’t know about our status. Still, I am worrying. Life is going. … It’s like depression for all Afghans.”
The couple was brought to the U.S. through the humanitarian parole process under Operation Allies Welcome, like most of the 10,000 Afghan refugees across the state of Texas. But parole is only good for two years, and with thousands of asylum and special immigrant visa cases pending in backlogged courts, chances of approval for permanent residency are far away and slim.
While they’re not in danger of deportation or otherwise being asked to leave the country, the backlogs in the process have led to uncertainty for refugees like Bilal and Humaira. In the meantime, as important documentation like driver’s licenses and work permits approach expiration, it’s not always clear when — or if — they’ll arrive.
With work permits they obtained through humanitarian parole, Bilal now works as a case manager at RAICES, and Humaira got a job in a prosthetics and orthotics clinic. They’re raising 17-month-old Mahsa, who is adjusting to day care.
In October, Bilal’s work permit will expire. If he doesn’t get an updated permit or indication that the renewal has been approved before then, he could lose his job.
Bilal checks on his asylum case and pending work permit renewal every day using the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services mobile app.
“During the day, during my lunch break, every time, I have to check,” he said. “I can say, more than 100 times, I’m checking my app. Hopefully I will hear something.”
In San Antonio, 3,852 Afghan individuals have arrived through the resettlement process since 2021 — 1,562 refugees and special immigrant visa holders, and 2,290 Afghan parolees resettled through Operation Allies Welcome. According to the Texas Office for Refugees, the actual number may be higher since there is no record of refugees who have secondarily migrated to San Antonio once already in the U.S.
For almost all of them, going back isn’t an option. For refugees who worked for organizations supported by the U.S. Embassy while in Afghanistan, their lives are in danger from retribution by the Taliban if they ever were to return.
Bilal and Humaira, like others now based in Texas, spoke to the San Antonio Report in 2021 and recent weeks without using their full names due to safety concerns.
Jonathan Ryan, a self-employed San Antonio attorney who works with Afghan refugees and other immigrants, explained the limbo this way:
“We all know the image of someone rock climbing,” Ryan said. “Being up on top. … That’s getting your green card. Everybody’s trying to get up there. The [handholds], that’s SIV (special immigrant visas) and asylum. They get you climbing up to the top. The pad on the ground is parole. … The harness is TPS (temporary protective status).”
… “What we’ve got right now is about 80,000 Afghans up the wall with no harness right now,” Ryan said. “What are we going to do as a country when they fall?”
Many who resettled in the U.S. two years ago feared what would happen when their parole status expires this year, but the Department of Homeland Security in June expanded humanitarian parole for Afghan refugees for two more years.
“I’m happy that they automatically renewed the parole, but it will not solve this problem,” Bilal said. “Parole is not something that [guarantees] you will stay here.”
Immigration advocates and attorneys say the move “kicks the can down the road” on the Afghan Adjustment Act, meaning Congress may not act until the 2025 deadline.
“Physically, I’m safe, and other Afghans are safe here. But mentally, we are not safe here, and every second we need to think about our status,” Bilal said.
A possible more permanent solution, the Afghan Adjustment Act of 2023, was re-introduced in both the House and the Senate in July and proposes to open a pathway to citizenship for Afghan refugees already in the U.S., as well as vulnerable Afghans in other countries waiting for their special immigrant visas.
Last week, U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-San Antonio) said he was unsure whether the Afghan Adjustment Act would pass in a public Q&A session at an immigration panel in San Antonio. As a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, Gonzales said Afghan refugees contribute positively to local communities and need the support of their neighbors.
“It’s absolutely vital that we do more to encourage protecting those type of people,” Gonzales said.
A new community in Texas
In the South Texas Medical Center, groups of young refugees walk together, smiling, laughing and holding cellphones. Some wear long perahan tunbans, or a tunic shirt and pants, with an optional turban depending on their ethnicity, village and affiliations.
The growing number of Afghan refugees in San Antonio has contributed to a blooming refugee culture, where new arrivals can immediately find activities and community that reminds them of home. Mostly on the North Side of town, there are multiple Islamic centers and mosques, savory Afghan cuisine restaurants and markets. Teenagers adjusting to Northside ISD schools can now play Afghanistan’s most popular sport, cricket, as an extracurricular activity.
Culturingua, a nonprofit in San Antonio, is one group that helps Arab American and South Asian American communities develop skills they need, like learning about building credit, learning English and job training, providing avenues to mental health services for those who lived through the war.
Researchers from the nonprofit Urban Institute worked with Culturingua to collect data on Afghan evacuees’ experiences during their resettlement in San Antonio.
Data showed that a lack of permanence in the U.S. has a “detrimental impact” on refugees’ ability to maintain a regular, economic livelihood — and that deadlines like expiring driver’s licenses, work permits and parole status add to their burdens, said Nadia Mavrakis, CEO of Culturingua.
“It’s also caused an incredible additional strain on the mental health of the evacuees who already have been through tremendous trauma through their sudden and forced displacement from their homeland, oftentimes leaving many family members behind,” Mavrakis said. “And on top of that, they have a lack of permanence from a legal perspective of being able to truly put their roots down and stay here permanently.”
While helping new groups of Afghan refugees is fulfilling for Bilal, he said it’s difficult to realize he is in the same legal situation as when he arrived, even two years later.
“When I’m helping my other Afghan and other refugees that are coming to United States and I’m working with them, it’s like a big mental issue for me. And [it’s the] same thing for the other Afghans,” he said.
At group dinners or reunions with Afghan friends, attendees often vent about their legal status. Bilal said everyone is doing a great job getting jobs to sustain their families, but the uncertainty puts “negative pressure” on them.
Meanwhile, friends of theirs who resettled in Canada, Europe or Germany already have documents that allow them to live in their respective countries and to travel. But Bilal insisted on coming to the U.S. even when he had opportunities elsewhere — and even with the challenges his family has faced, they’re glad they’re here.
“I told them, no, I’m going to America,” Bilal said. “USA is for me, ‘U-can Start Again.'”