Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, Inc. (ABLE) is a non-profit regional law firm that provides high quality legal assistance in civil matters to help eligible low-income individuals and groups in western Ohio achieve self reliance, and equal justice and economic opportunity.
New Program Provides Civil Legal Assistance to Afghan Evacuees in Western Ohio
When the U.S. left Afghanistan in August of 2021, it evacuated over 75,000 people to states throughout the country. Ohio received approximately 1,700 evacuees, with more expecting to arrive this year. Many have legal needs related to rights under immigration law, and because of their emergency exit from Afghanistan, they have no way to pay for legal help. ABLE recently launched a regional program to address the civil legal needs of Afghan evacuees residing in western and central Ohio. The Afghan Evacuee Immigration Legal Services Project works with resettlement agencies to work towards legal stability for evacuees who have been brought to Ohio.
In partnership with Catholic Charities of Southwestern Ohio, Catholic Social Services of the Miami Valley, Ethiopian Tewahedo Social Services, and US Together, the ABLE-led project has officially kicked off with a series of community legal clinics to educate Afghan evacuees on immigration law and specific forms of relief for which they may be eligible. The community clinics also provide screening for and legal consultation regarding these forms of relief.
Following the clinics, the project will represent individual evacuees and their family members in applications before U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the nature of which will depend on legal developments and individual eligibility. It is anticipated that many will file for Temporary Protected Status and Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs).
Here’s a timeline describing legal developments affecting Ohio’s Afghan evacuees:
- 2006: Congress created the SIV program to help Afghans and Iraqis who had assisted American operations post-9/11 secure entry into the U.S. and give them a path to citizenship.
- 2009-2021: An additional SIV program for Afghans was established in 2009 that expanded eligibility for SIVs to include Afghans who worked for the U.S. government (or a closely associated entity, such as a company with a government contract), in a capacity other than interpreter/translator (ex. administrative staff in the U.S. embassy). Considerably more visas became available through this program, but the thousands of backlogged applications and lengthy delays in processing times, as well as the closure of the U.S. embassy in Afghanistan in 2021, have significantly impacted the ability of SIV-eligible Afghans and their families to be granted a visa and resettle in the U.S.
- August of 2021: Thousands of Afghans rushed to the airport to flee the Taliban-captured city of Kabul and other places throughout the country. The U.S. government evacuated over 75,000 people. This number includes individuals and their immediate family members who had already applied for SIV, along with Afghans who had also assisted the U.S., but in ways that did not meet the narrow requirements for SIV (such as Afghans who served in Afghanistan’s armed forces or extended family members of Afghans eligible for SIV). These Afghans were granted humanitarian parole, which allowed them to enter the country without a visa and to remain for two years.
- 2021-2022: The Operation Allies Welcome program connected Afghan evacuees to resettlement agencies and community organizations across the country. Evacuees are eligible for the same public benefits as refugees and are also eligible to apply for work authorization. The resettlement agencies and community organizations have helped evacuees secure access to housing, employment, food, and cash and medical assistance programs, register youth for school, provide transportation, and cultural and language integration classes.
- 2022: The Ohio Access to Justice Foundation created a fund to support Ohio legal organizations partnering with resettlement agencies to provide immigration legal services to Ohio’s new evacuees. ABLE was awarded a grant to work in Columbus, Southwest Ohio, and Northwest Ohio.
- Today: The legal status for Afghan evacuees remains tenuous. The Afghan Adjustment Act, which provides a path to permanent legal status for evacuees, is currently pending in Congress. Congress has previously authorized adjustment of status for non-immigrants or parolees fleeing a humanitarian crisis or a conflict in which the U.S. was involved: for Cubans following the Cuban revolution and rise of Fidel Castro; for Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, and Hmong refugees following the Vietnam War; and for Iraqis (such as ethnic Kurds or Iraqi nationals who assisted the U.S.) following Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom. If the Afghan Adjustment Act does not pass, Afghan evacuees will face possible deportation to Afghanistan if they are denied SIV or asylum claims in immigration court. SIV and asylum are the primary means for evacuees to receive permanent legal status, but both are significantly backlogged with pending applications and there are still thousands of Afghans stranded outside the U.S. who are also eligible for admission. The Afghan Adjustment Act would provide certainty for evacuees and their families by allowing them to adjust to lawful permanent resident status which benefits include a green card (the right to live and work in the U.S. indefinitely), the right to travel in and out of the U.S., access to federal benefits, the ability to apply for lawful permanent residency for family members, and eligibility for naturalized citizenship after five years.
The Afghan Evacuee Immigration Legal Services Project will continue to provide legal guidance and help our new community members as continued progress is made toward stabilizing this humanitarian crisis. ABLE hired two new staff members, attorneys Heather Campbell and Sara Bobbitt, who are serving this client population. Senior Attorney Katie Kersh is also working on the initiative. The project is generously supported through a grant awarded by the Ohio Access to Justice Foundation.