▶ Watch Video: U.S. relocates all Afghan evacuees from military sites

The Biden administration will provide immigration relief to tens of thousands of Afghans in the U.S., shielding them from deportation due to the deteriorating security and economic conditions in Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover last year, the Department of Homeland Security announced Wednesday.

After determining that Afghanistan is too dangerous to send deportees there, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas allowed Afghans in the U.S. to apply for Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which would protect them from deportation and allow them to work legally for 18 months.

The move, which was first reported by CBS News earlier Wednesday, is particularly significant for more than 76,000 Afghans who were evacuated and resettled by the U.S. after the chaotic American military withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021.

The evacuees entered the U.S. under a two-year humanitarian classification known as parole, not as traditional refugees, leaving tens of thousands of them without a legal avenue to obtain permanent residency and at risk of facing deportation if their asylum claims are rejected.

In his announcement, Mayorkas cited the Taliban’s efforts to establish control of Afghanistan by force, attacks against civilians by the Islamic State affiliate ISIS-K and socioeconomic conditions, including the country’s economic crisis, hunger, drought, water insecurity and scarce medical services. He also referenced human rights abuses by Taliban forces.

“Under this designation, TPS will also provide additional protections and assurances to trusted partners and vulnerable Afghans who supported the U.S. military, diplomatic, and humanitarian missions in Afghanistan over the last 20 years,” Mayorkas said.

Under U.S. immigration law, the DHS secretary can offer TPS to immigrants in the U.S. if it is determined that their home countries are unable to safely accept deportees because of armed conflict, natural disasters, an epidemic or other “extraordinary” emergencies.

The TPS program for Afghanistan will be limited to eligible Afghans who were in the U.S. as of March 15, rendering new arrivals ineligible for the relief. TPS has other eligibility requirements and does not apply to people convicted of certain crimes.

Afghan refugees arrive to Dulles International Airport on Friday, August 27, 2021, after leaving Afghanistan as it fell to the Taliban. Some evacuees are American citizens or reside in the U.S. and were visiting Afghanistan at the time of the take over. 

Tom Williams

As part of broader efforts to limit humanitarian immigration programs, the Trump administration tried to end TPS protections for hundreds of thousands of immigrants living in the U.S., arguing that the authority is supposed to be used on a limited basis. However, federal courts halted those plans.

The Biden administration has used the TPS authority more liberally, expanding the program’s eligibility to an estimated 500,000 people in the U.S., including Venezuelans, Haitians, South Sudanese and Ukrainians, who were offered the protection a week after Russia invaded Ukraine late last month.

As part of the largest resettlement operation since the 1970s, the U.S. set up an inter-agency system to vet, process and resettle Afghans who were found to be in danger of being persecuted by the hardline Taliban regime, including those who aided American forces during the 20-year war in Afghanistan.

The first stage of the resettlement operation was completed last month, when the U.S. relocated all evacuees from temporary processing hubs it established at domestic military sites. One-third of Afghan evacuees have settled in Texas, California and Virginia, internal government figures show.

Parole allowed the Biden administration to quickly bring Afghan evacuees to the U.S., but the temporary immigration process does not allow beneficiaries to obtain permanent residency, or green cards.

U.S. officials have determined that nearly 37,000 Afghan evacuees are eligible for permanent residency through the Special Immigrant Visa program because they or their immediate family members aided the American war effort in Afghanistan, according to a December Department of Homeland Security (DHS) report.

But the report said another 36,000 evacuees don’t have a legal pathway to secure permanent residency, leaving them in legal limbo unless Congress legalizes them or they request and win U.S. asylum.

Despite vocal calls from refugee advocates, however, Congress has not passed an Afghan Adjustment Act, which would provide green cards to eligible evacuees, placing them on a pathway to U.S. citizenship.

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, one of nine national resettlement agencies, applauded the TPS designation, saying it recognizes that Afghans could be harmed if returned to their homeland. But she urged Congress to make evacuated Afghans eligible for green cards.

“Our nation’s moral obligation to Afghans can’t end with this designation. We need to provide the stability that only a pathway to permanent residence can provide,” Krish O’Mara Vignarajah told CBS News. “That’s why we’ve been advocating to Congress to deliver lasting safety through the Afghan Adjustment Act.”