Refugees who fled Afghanistan during the chaotic final days of America's longest war are getting a temporary reprieve from an immigration deadline set to hit later this year. The announcement comes as the congressional investigation into the withdrawal takes a contentious turn over producing documents.
Late last week, the Biden administration confirmed it will allow Afghans evacuated during the withdrawal to apply to extend their temporary immigration status when it expires this summer as negotiations in Congress over providing evacuees permanent residency remain at an impasse.
Meanwhile, on Monday, the House chairman investigating the withdrawal threatened to hold Secretary of State Antony Blinken in contempt of Congress if the State Department continues to withhold a document that reportedly warned of Kabul's imminent collapse weeks before it happened.
Some 78,000 Afghans were brought to the United States on U.S. military evacuation flights in August 2021, most of whom were admitted under a temporary status known as humanitarian parole. Most evacuees were granted two years of parole, meaning their protection to legally work and live in the United States is on track to expire this coming August.
Parole does not provide a pathway to apply for legal permanent resident status, commonly known as a green card. While parolees can apply for asylum, that could leave Afghans in limbo for years as U.S. immigration courts are already struggling to process more than 1.5 million pending cases.
Veterans and other advocates have been pushing Congress to pass a bill that would create a streamlined process for the Afghan evacuees to get green cards. But the bill did not get a vote last year amid GOP concerns about security vetting of evacuees, and prospects for advancing the bill this year are dim with Republicans in control of the House.
In the face of the continued congressional inaction, the Department of Homeland Security announced Friday that, starting in June, Afghans will be able to apply to extend their parole.
Requests for re-parole will be considered on a case-by-case basis, and more details about the application process will be released "soon," the department said. The agency will also be hosting "Afghan Support Centers" across the country with information about immigration and social services available to Afghans, starting with Phoenix, Arizona, on May 17.
"The Biden-Harris administration is committed to the continued safety, security, and well-being of the thousands of Afghan nationals who arrived in the United States through [Operation Allies Welcome] and continue to through Enduring Welcome," the Department of Homeland Security said Friday. "The administration has repeatedly put forward an adjustment act and publicly called on Congress to support a bipartisan adjustment act that would provide a durable, more streamlined immigration pathway for those currently in parole."
As Afghan evacuees continue to await congressional action on more permanent protections, House Republicans and the Biden administration are butting heads over Republicans' investigation into the withdrawal.
The GOP-led House Foreign Affairs Committee has been probing the withdrawal, including hearing emotional testimony from troops and veterans who were on the ground during the evacuation that included a suicide bombing that killed 13 U.S. service members.
In March, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, issued a subpoena demanding the State Department hand over what's known as a "dissent cable" that diplomats in Afghanistan sent to department leadership reportedly warning that Kabul would soon fall to the Taliban.
The State Department maintains that providing the cable to Congress could have a chilling effect on future use of the confidential channel that allows rank-and-file personnel to voice policy concerns. Instead, the department has provided summaries and a briefing to the committee about the contents of the cable and the department's response to it.
McCaul maintains the summaries and briefing do not satisfy his subpoena, insisting the committee needs to see the cable itself to perform its oversight duties.
In a letter dated Friday and publicly released Monday, McCaul gave Blinken until 6 p.m. Thursday to comply with the subpoena.
"Should you fail to comply, the committee is prepared to take the necessary steps to enforce its subpoena, including holding you in contempt of Congress and/or initiating a civil enforcement proceeding," McCaul wrote. "It is inherently problematic for the department, which is the subject of the committee's investigation, to be permitted to withhold key material evidence and substitute its own abbreviated characterizations of that evidence for the original documents."
Holding an official in contempt of Congress requires a committee vote, followed by a full House vote. It would then be up to the Justice Department to decide whether to actually bring charges and pursue a prosecution.
In a statement, the State Department called McCaul's threat "unnecessary and unproductive," highlighting the briefing and summaries the department has already provided to the committee.
"Nevertheless," the department added, "we will continue to respond to appropriate oversight inquiries and provide Congress the information it needs to do its job while protecting the ability of State Department employees to do theirs."
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.