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A bipartisan bill in Congress to grant legal status to Afghan refugees is blocked

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

American forces brought tens of thousands of Afghans to the U.S. after the Taliban takeover in 2021. But the majority still don't have legal status here. A bipartisan bill in Congress to fix that was blocked by immigration hard-liners this week. We're joined now by NPR's Quil Lawrence, who has been following this story. Good morning, Quil.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So I understand you spoke with one prominent Afghanistan war veteran about this - Jack McCain, son of the late Senator John McCain.

LAWRENCE: Right. Yeah. And McCain is a - he's a fairly private person, but he's been out in the public on this issue. He's a Navy pilot. He went to Afghanistan in 2018 on a mission to train Afghan pilots to fly American-made Black Hawk helicopters. And while he was there, he kept a very low profile for his own safety and the safety of everyone around him as a well-known figure. So in August of that year, though, he went home for five days for his father, John - Senator John McCain's funeral. And then the secret was out. And McCain, Jack McCain, the younger McCain says that the danger was very clear.

JACK MCCAIN: If one of them had wanted to make a high-profile target out of me, they could have - would have been extremely easy. I believe that they protected me or at least kept the secret. I can't overstate how important that is to me.

LAWRENCE: You know, so he got very close to these Afghan Black Hawk pilots in the next eight months left on his deployment, trained up dozens of them to fly the chopper. And he said he saw those pilots rescue Afghan and American troops under fire in ways that were worthy of the highest combat medals.

FADEL: Worthy of the highest combat medals. So what's happened to these pilots just three years later when the Taliban took over Afghanistan?

LAWRENCE: Well, they kept flying missions, some of them, even after Kabul fell, trying to help the resistance. But it was seen as very important to bring them in. They and their helicopters, then, were very high-value targets to the Taliban. And so McCain and others were part of this massive digital Dunkirk trying to get everybody out. They - about 120,000 people were airlifted out of Kabul during those two weeks in August of 2021.

FADEL: Yeah. And many of them were flown to bases in the U.S. But almost a year and a half later, their status isn't clear, right?

LAWRENCE: Right. I mean, many - most of them are here on an emergency immigration status that will probably run out sometime next year.

FADEL: OK.

LAWRENCE: There was a bill in Congress this week called the Afghan Adjustment Act to help them normalize their immigration status. But - and it had bipartisan support. It had a growing list of former generals and ambassadors supporting it and a yearlong campaign by Afghanistan veterans. But it was blocked by Republican Senator Chuck Grassley because of concerns about security vetting of these Afghans. And so now they're in limbo. I spoke with one of the pilots that Jack McCain says helped keep him safe in Afghanistan. The pilot's name is Colonel Salim Faqiri. He put it this way.

SALIM FAQIRI: All the peoples - they come during the evacuations, and they don't know what will happen to them. The U.S. government will return them back to the - for the Taliban. But everybody's waiting for the Congress to pass the Afghan Adjustment.

LAWRENCE: Faqiri himself is in Phoenix right now. He's with his wife and three daughters. He has another reason to want the act to pass - because it would actually help him get a green card so that he and all these other pilots can fly helicopters again, which is what the U.S. trained them to do.

FADEL: So he said everybody's waiting for Congress. Does the bill have a chance in the next Congress?

LAWRENCE: It probably will have a harder time getting through the Republican-controlled House, but it's not a strictly party-line vote. And many Republicans, especially Republicans who served at war, did support this bill.

FADEL: NPR's Quil Lawrence, thanks so much.

LAWRENCE: Thanks, Leila.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.