U.S. waives immigration application fees for Afghan evacuees

Author: Camilo Montoya-Galvez / CBS
Families evacuated from Kabul, Afghanistan, walk through the terminal before boarding a bus after they arrived at Washington Dulles International Airport, in Chantilly, Va., on Friday, Aug. 27, 2021. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

The Biden administration will waive application fees for tens of thousands of Afghans evacuees who are filing requests for U.S. work permits and permanent residency, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced Monday.

Afghans brought to the U.S. after July 30 under a humanitarian immigration process known as parole will qualify for a fee exemption on their applications for work authorization. The U.S. will also waive permanent residency petition fees for Afghans who are requesting Special Immigrant Visas due to their work with U.S. military forces.

Advocates had urged the Biden administration to waive these charges for weeks, saying that most of the new arrivals from Afghanistan don’t have the resources to pay the fees.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) typically requires work permit applicants to pay $495 in application and biometric collection fees. The agency can charge up to $1,225 in fees to adjudicate petitions for permanent residency, which is also known as green card status.

“These actions demonstrate our ongoing commitment to Afghan nationals who provided valuable assistance to the United States over the past two decades as well as other Afghans at risk,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayoraks said in a statement Monday.

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, one of nine national refugee resettlement agencies, welcomed Monday’s announcement, saying many of the Afghan families her group serves face financial insecurity and are eager to find jobs.

“This policy decision is an economic win-win; we can get these families on the road to self-sufficiency, and we can unleash their potential for employers desperate for talented workers amid a labor shortage,” Vignarajah said.

Since August, roughly 70,000 Afghans have been relocated to the U.S. following the swift Taliban conquest of their homeland, according to the latest government data. They include Afghans who assisted U.S. military forces, their families, family members of U.S. citizens and green card holders and others deemed to be at risk of Taliban persecution, including journalists, aid workers and activists.

Approximately 50,000 evacuees are currently living at eight domestic U.S. military sites while they complete their legal paperwork, the latest DHS figures show. They have also been receiving vaccinations against the coronavirus, measles and other communicable diseases.

As of last week, 14,000 Afghan evacuees had departed the military installations to resettle in communities across America. While nonprofit organizations have largely overseen this stage of the resettlement process, the Biden administration unveiled an initiative last month to allow groups of private U.S. citizens to sponsor Afghan families.

Another 2,000 Afghan evacuees remain at bases in the Middle East and Europe, where U.S. officials have been conducting security screenings and background checks, according to DHS statistics.

While parole authorizes the entry of individuals and allows them to work in the U.S. legally, it does not provide beneficiaries an avenue to apply for permanent legal status.

The U.S. estimates that 40% of the Afghans brought to the U.S. since the summer qualify for Special Immigrant Visas because of their assistance to the U.S. during the 20-year war in Afghanistan. Special Immigrant Visa holders and their spouses and children automatically qualify for permanent residency.

For months, refugee advocates have called for the creation of a legalization program for Afghans, especially those who don’t qualify for the special visas, like journalists and activists, but Congress has yet to approve such a plan.

Instead, in September, Congress created what is supposed to be an expedited asylum process for Afghans who entered the U.S. under the parole process. Congress directed USCIS to interview Afghan evacuees no later than 45 days after they file an asylum petition and to generally issue a final decision within 150 days.

USCIS is currently reviewing over 400,000 pending asylum applications, prompting concerns among advocates that Afghans may get stuck in this backlogged process unless a legalization program is established.

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