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Ismail Amiri entered the Afghan National Military Academy as a cadet in 2014, while the U.S. was still occupying his country. When the government in Kabul fell in 2021, Amiri was in the United Arab Emirates, studying to become a pilot in the Afghan Air Force. That assignment may have saved his life. But Amiri says watching Afghanistan collapse was gut-wrenching.
“Now we don’t have any flag, any government, and we don’t know about our future, what will happen tomorrow,” Amiri said.
Amiri and other pilot trainees were certain they would be killed if they went home. So, an American defense contractor arranged for them to come to the U.S. Amiri eventually landed in Houston and found work as a truck driver. But his dream is still to become a military pilot.
“Oh, it is my great ambition [that] I become a member of the Air Force of the USA,” Amiri said.
Right now, Amiri can’t join the U.S. Air Force because he doesn’t have a green card. He’s technically eligible for something called a Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV, which would let him apply for a green card. But the Kabul government collapsed before he could file all the paperwork. So instead he’s here on what’s called humanitarian parole while he applies for SIV status. Afghan refugees are granted parole for 24 months, but the SIV application process can take up to 34 months.
The United States has taken in more than 100,000 refugees from Afghanistan since the country fell to the Taliban in August 2021. The Houston area has been a magnet for many refugees, in part because there’s a vibrant veterans’ community there that welcomes them. But many recent Afghan arrivals are in legal limbo here in the U.S., and a deadline on their status is rapidly approaching.
Ali Zakaria, an immigration attorney, said the U.S. owes the Afghan refugees a debt.
“We were there for 20 years. We asked all of these people to assist us, help us, work with us,” Zakaria said. “And then at the end of the day, they had to essentially get on the wings of an airplane that was about to take off to get away from [the] Taliban.”
The Joe Biden administration is calling on Congress to pass legislation that would expedite Afghan applications. But Congress has yet to act. Until they do, the parolees are not only unable to apply for many jobs, but they are uncertain how long they can stay here.
The White House has announced such refugees can apply for an extension of their parole. That will buy them another 24 months to try to apply for permanent residency.
Khalil Arab works for Combined Arms, a Houston-based organization that advocates for veterans. Like Zakaria, he says many parolees risked their lives and the lives of their families to help the U.S.
“The last thing that [the] The U.S. government, Arab said, should “acknowledge that and help them, give them a chance so that they can be a productive member of society here.”
Correction (June 8, 2023): A previous version of this story misspelled Ismail Amiri’s name.
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