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Without permanent legal status, Afghan refugees face losing jobs in Oklahoma

 Dr. Feroz Bashari
Oklahoma City Afghan Legal Network
Dr. Feroz Bashari

Dr. Feroz Bashari upended his life to come to the United States.

“We were worried about our lives. And we could have been killed if we were left behind. Tortured, arrested, or whatever. We don't know what's going to happen. But thank God, we made it,” Bashari said.

Bashari is a father of five. And he’s made a new life for himself in Oklahoma — where he’s resettled. He’s working as a lecturer at the University of Oklahoma and a communications specialist for the Oklahoma City Afghan Legal Network.

When the Taliban took control of the government, Bashari was working as a media advisor at the U.S. Embassy there. When United States forces evacuated in August 2021, his family was on the last plane out of Kabul.

“It was tough. It wasn’t easy. But I was very happy because I left Afghanistan,” Bashari said.

After Kabul fell, 1,800 Afghan refugees were resettled in Oklahoma. Jennifer Hund is the Refugee Services Coordinator for the Oklahoma chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. She said refugees like Bashari were given a two-year temporary status as parolees after being evacuated from Afghanistan. During the last two years, the parolees needed to apply for asylum, but Hund said there is a significant backlog in processing the applications.

“Some people have been waiting six, seven, eight, nine months. Everything's pending, pending, pending, pending. And when they hit their two-year mark, their work authorizations, their valid IDs, all of that expires. And those things are starting to happen now,” Hund said.

While the federal government is allowing parolees with pending asylum applications to continue receiving benefits and services from the Office of Refugee Resettlement, Bashari said he is frustrated because members of his community expected an easy path to permanent residence in their new home.

“We fought international terrorism shoulder by shoulder with Americans. We risk our life supporting the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. Now, we are here. We were promised to be granted permanent status based on the law. We feel like we’re in a limbo situation,” Bashari said.

That’s why members of the Afghan refugee community and organizations supporting them are advocating for the Afghan Adjustment Act, a bill that was introduced to Congress in July creating a straightforward path to permanent residence for the thousands of Afghan refugees with parolee status. While the process would be expedited, Hund said it wouldn’t be less thorough.

“Everyone still has to go through all of the background checks, the biometric scans, you know, all of those things. It's not like it's like a free pass for someone to all of a sudden, oh, you're just magically considered a U.S. citizen. It just means that that clock is gone and you get more time. And frankly, that's what's needed here,” Hund said.

For many Afghan refugees, pending application statuses are more than bureaucratic headaches. Melissa Lujan is an immigration lawyer with the Oklahoma City Afghan Legal Network. She said she hears from Afghan refugees daily about the pending threats to their legal status.

“Most employers are taking the position of, okay, they don't have a new work permit. They're not eligible to work. So we have people who have done their best to move into our society, learn English, get jobs, get new job training after leaving what they left behind in Afghanistan. And now they're losing those jobs because their employers are saying, wait a second, we don't see that we can continue to hire you,” Lujan said.

Apart from concerns about losing their jobs, Lujan said there are many reasons the Afghan refugees are seeking permanent status.

“Some of these people want to join the military because that was their career and they have incredible skills. Some people want to become citizens or lawful permanent residents so they can travel abroad and see other family members in Europe and other countries. Some people just want that dignity of belonging permanently to this society,” Lujan said. 

Bashari said he hopes Congress will take action soon.

“We have to plan for our future. We are here now. We live here and have the right and deserve the right to live like others and plan like others for the future,” Bashari said.

The Afghan Adjustment Act has bipartisan support in both the United States House and Senate from multiple states. Senator Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma is a cosponsor of the bill.

Hannah France is a reporter and producer for KGOU.
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