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Two years on, Afghan evacuees in Ohio face legal limbo

An older teenage boy sits on a futon-type mattress on the ground, crossed legged. His arms are at his sides and he is looking at the camera.
Alejandro Figueroa
19-year-old Eltaf sitting in his room at his family home before moving out to college.

Eltaf’s family home in Dayton feels warm. There’s a big scarlet red, Persian rug that takes up the entire living room, there’s pillows everywhere and it smells of tea — mahmood tea to be exact.

Eltaf’s 2-year-old cousin, Samay, runs around the room. His mom chases him around, trying to pick him up.

The family has made a home in Ohio after coming to America with nothing.

“I just brought a pair of shoes and just the clothes that I wore and a pair of pants and one t-shirt, that’s it,” Mortaza, Eltaf’s uncle, said. He’s sitting in the living room drinking tea and eating an assorted tray of nuts and raisins.

Back home, the family was well-known for their photography studio. That was before they were forced to flee the Bamyan Province of the country when the Afghan government collapsed and the Taliban took over two years ago.

“Now I'm living in the United States. Dayton, Ohio,” Eltaf said. “This is kind of good, I guess, And I'm happy to be here and also feeling that I'm free to do what I want.”

The Ohio Newsroom is not using his family's last name because the family fears for their relatives' safety in Afghanistan.

Eltaf was one of the more than 70,000 Afghans that were resettled in the U.S. through Operation Allies Welcome. In Ohio, there’s more than 1,700 evacuees, according to the Department of Jobs and Family Services.

His dad and uncle worked alongside U.S. army special forces and they feared retaliation from the Taliban. Eltaf still vividly remembers the day he fled Kabul with his mom and siblings.

“I didn't say goodbye to my friends, to my family, or to anyone,” Eltaf said. “I still remember those days. Like I went to Kabul. And then on the way I was crying. Because my dad was not with me and my smaller brother, he was not with me.”

His younger brother and dad have joined the family since. Eltaf is now 19. He graduated high school this past spring and had plans to go to college, and study biology. But there was a problem.

“They are saying that you need this document and this document to be like a college student. And I only got one month to show them,” Eltaf said.

The complex legal process

Eltaf’s family was one of many that came to the U.S. through the humanitarian parole program.

Vincent Wells, an immigration attorney for Community Refugee & Immigration Services, says the program is like temporary status.

“That's a status that the United States government is giving these individuals saying, you know, they need to seek refuge for a period of time. It's not extended time,” Wells said.

It was meant to be a two year program, during which Afghans applied for asylum status. For many Afghans, it was supposed to expire in August of 2023. The Biden administration extended it for two more years back in May and those who have a pending asylum case, like Eltaf and his family, were supposed to get automatic parole extensions.

But Eltaf’s family, who falls in that category, hadn't received word of any extension several months after the announcement. And that caused problems, like the one with his college documents.

“There will be a lapse. So you're saying if you're on parole, if you don't have proof that your parole has been extended or even if you have a submission pending, you're technically without status,” Wells said.

Wells said those who don’t have an asylum case have to request an extension. The Department of Homeland Security said in release those re-parole requests would be considered on a case-by-case basis for urgent humanitarian reasons.

In early August, his resettlement agency received two parole extension notices out of over 100 it submitted in May. Some resettlement agencies across the state haven’t received any notices at all.

Wells said as a result, many families have been in a state of anxiety because of how slow the resettlement process has been. He also said what adds to the problem is having to explain to landlords, employers and schools that Afghans can, in fact, work and live in the U.S. despite their complex legal status.

“It's such a unique situation,” Wells said. “A lot of employers don't employ [people] in this situation because it's too complicated and they don't want to break the law.”

Federal action stalls in Congress

Advocates want Congress to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act – which would allow evacuees to receive green cards after additional vetting. House Republicans struck down an earlier version — claiming evacuees pose a security risk — but it was reintroduced in July.

Humanitarian parole by itself does not provide a legal pathway for U.S. citizenship. Without federal action, Wells said many families will be stuck in legal limbo.

“Are we really trying to vet them or do we just not want to make it easier for them, for our own allies [to come here]? I mean, it's literally called ‘Operation Allies Welcome.’ And we haven't really made them feel too welcome,” Wells said.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said it’s expediting the asylum process for Afghans, and if there’s no exceptional circumstances in a case, it usually takes up to about 150 days to complete the process. But Wells said there’s a backlog and cases can actually take up quadruple that to complete.

After 10 months of waiting, Eltaf’s family was granted asylum in August. He’s now eligible to receive financial aid and scholarships and can go to college this fall. Asylum also means the family can eventually apply for more permanent legal status like a green card. But some of his extended family members – along with thousands in Ohio and across the country – are still waiting.

“I don't know what's going to happen. Like it's not only in my family, it's like it's happening for everyone,” Eltaf said. “Back in my country no one is safe even right now. I'm so grateful [I’m here]. I feel safe here. But I'm worried for my family and my people.”

Alejandro Figueroa covers food insecurity and the business of food for Ohio Newsroom member station WYSO.