Abdul Amir Qarizada is pictured March 17 at a Las Cruces hotel. The Afghan refugee, who said he served in the Afghan Air Force, said he is desperate for work to send money home to his wife and young children and to pay for an attorney to help him bring them here. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann/ Source New Mexico)
The news made its way from Washington, D.C. to Las Cruces a few weeks ago, carried via phone call or WhatsApp message, prompting a sigh of relief.
Afghans being resettled in the United States needn’t fear imminent deportation to the country they fled last year, thanks to a federal order granting them Temporary Protected Status, which lasts for 18 months and can be renewed indefinitely.
The March 16 announcement from Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas came after weeks of criticism. Ukraine refugees had been granted Temporary Protected Status immediately after Russia invaded their country, but Afghans here for months had lived under so-called “humanitarian parole,” which offered protection for only two years.
This is part four in a series about Afghans seeking refuge in New Mexico and working to build new lives.
It’s drawn from interviews with 16 newcomers, plus experts, state and federal officials, and leaders of the two resettlement agencies in Las Cruces.
Despite the welcome development, Mayorkas’ order doesn’t provide the Afghans many of the things they told Source New Mexico that they most needed.
For example, it applies only to Afghans in the country as of March 15, not to their families left behind in Afghanistan. It also does not provide them a path to permanent citizenship, and a president can, at any moment, decide not to renew it.
And the order exists only in theory unless Afghans have help navigating a backlogged and confusing immigration system, according to Syed Rafique Ahmed, director of the Southern New Mexico Islamic Center.
“Even if they give them Temporary Protected Status, they need a lawyer who has to help them with that,” Ahmed told Source New Mexico after a Friday prayer outside the mosque he leads. “We need more resources from the government, especially in New Mexico. We need more immigration lawyers.”
Sixteen Afghans spoke to Source New Mexico about the troubles they’re facing as they try to make a new life in Las Cruces, a city without an Afghan community that had never before resettled Middle Eastern refugees. About 225 Afghans arrived in the city in recent months under the care of two agencies paid to support them.
Afghans with both agencies said in interviews that they rarely had access to an attorney to help them apply for asylum or a Special Immigrant Visa, a visa provided to Afghan or Iraqi nationals who helped United States military efforts during the invasion and occupation of those two countries.
At El Calvario United Methodist Church, for example, Afghans said an attorney was available once a week or every two weeks to provide incremental help to 100 Afghans. At Lutheran Family Services, Andrew Byrd, the organization’s coordinator for Southern New Mexico, agreed that the one attorney serving the agency’s 400 Afghans across the state had way too much work to do.
“Unfortunately, it’s just a single person who does our immigration legal services here. And they don’t just serve Las Cruces. They actually provide services statewide,” Byrd said. “So in addition to our arrivals down here, they are also working with Afghans arriving in Albuquerque and Santa Fe.”
Byrd said lack of government funding limited the amount of legal work the organization could provide. He also said helping an influx of Afghans, each with complicated asylum cases, requires an “overabundance” of immigration attorneys the state just doesn’t have.
A spokesperson from the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center wasn’t immediately available for an interview last week. However, Jasmine McGee, the center’s managing attorney, recently told the Santa Fe Reporter that it could be overwhelmed with asylum cases for Afghans, depending on how big the caseload is.
There are more than 400,000 asylum cases pending with the United States Center for Immigration Services, for example, plus 60,000 Special Immigrant Visa applications, according to the federal agency. Cases can take several years.
Byrd joined a number of national refugee resettlement agencies in calling for an act by Congress to adjust immigration status for all 76,000-or-so refugees rescued from a collapsing Afghanistan late last summer. Doing so could spare Afghans the stress and cost of navigating the asylum or visa process while also helping the federal government avoid additional backlogs, they say.
But a so-called “Afghanistan Adjustment Act” has not been introduced by a member of Congress. Organizations hoped it would be included in the recent spending bill President Joe Biden signed. It wasn’t.
Abdul Amir Qarizada, an Afghan refugee in Las Cruces, told Source New Mexico he is stuck in a legal limbo due to both the backlog and the lack of legal assistance, and he needs money to pay for an attorney to help make his case for permanent residency. He said he worked with the Special Mission Wing of the Afghan Air Force, which provides surveillance, intelligence and counterterrorism services.
He fears his family will be targeted by the Taliban thanks to his work in the military and that they won’t be able to find money for food or other essentials in the meantime.
He desperately needs a job, he said. His wife and five kids under age 7 are still in Afghanistan.
A recent United Nations report found that 95% of Afghans still in their country are not getting enough food to eat.
Qarizada, who is a client of El Calvario United Methodist Church, is still seeking a work authorization since arriving in Las Cruces in December, he said. And he needs the dedicated help of a lawyer to help him file for a Special Immigrant Visa or asylum, he said.
Special Immigrant Visas or asylum do allow for refugees to send for their families in certain circumstances, but generally not for siblings or parents – only spouses and children under age 21, according to government websites and advocacy groups.
Qarizada said he is afraid every day for the safety of his kids and wife.
“I cannot support my family. Every day is danger to danger,” Qarizada said. “I request you, if it’s possible, to pass our message to the Congress about my family.”
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