Phil Stewart and Mica Rosenberg, Reuters, October 1, 2021
Something unexpected is happening at U.S. military bases hosting Afghan evacuees: Many hundreds of them are simply leaving before receiving U.S. resettlement services, two sources familiar with the data told Reuters.
The number of “independent departures,” which top 700 and could be higher, has not been previously reported. But the phenomenon is raising alarms among immigration advocates concerned about the risks to Afghans who give up on what is now an open-ended, complex and completely voluntary resettlement process.
In the speed and chaos of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in August following 20 years of war, many evacuees were brought into the United States under a temporary status of “humanitarian parole.” Once transferred to U.S. military bases, refugee resettlement groups and U.S. officials have been trying to connect people with services for a smooth transition to the United States.
In a statement, a U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) spokesperson declined to comment on the figures provided to Reuters by sources but said people who had left the bases “generally” had ties to the United States, like family members of friends, and resources to support themselves.
The spokesperson said that in addition, at the outset of the operation many of those evacuated were U.S. citizens, permanent residents or had approved Special Immigrant Visas so were able to depart quickly.
But leaving early could cost other Afghan evacuees critical benefits – like expedited work permits – and create a slew of legal problems down the road, given the complexities of the U.S. immigration system.
“It’s a giant can of worms,” said one U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“This could lead to years and years of terrible immigration status problems.”
Immigration experts say Afghans who leave the bases are not breaking U.S. laws and military officials have no legal authority to hold law-abiding Afghans against their will at any of the eight locations hosting 53,000 Afghans who fled the Taliban on U.S. evacuation flights.
The scale of the independent departures vary from base to base, according to the sources – more than 300 alone at Fort Bliss in Texas – a figure that is likely to alarm both advocates and critics of the massive U.S. resettlement operation.