Mahnaz Akbari fought alongside U.S. troops in Afghanistan and now wants to join the American military. But the former Afghan Female Tactical Platoon commander can’t enlist until her immigration status is settled.
“There is a big group of us, around 30 women, wanting to join the military but just waiting for years now,” she said. “We want to serve, we want to do more, but we don’t have the ability to do anything until someone makes a decision about our permanent status.”
Akbari and her colleagues appeared alongside lawmakers and veterans advocates on Capitol Hill Tuesday in the latest attempt to jump-start discussions on a series of bills pending before Congress which would speed up and clean up immigration services for Afghans who aided U.S. troops during the nearly 20 years of military operations overseas.
Officials said they are hopeful that a path can be found to attach those measures to other budget bills or legislative packages destined for passage in coming months. But they have expressed that optimism in past years, too, only to see efforts repeatedly fall short.
“Congress needed to act on this two years ago, and they still need to act now,” said Tom Seaman, legislative director of With Honor. “We cannot stop, no matter how long this takes. Because our honor is at stake, and this is long overdue.”
Advocacy groups estimate there are about 150,000 Afghans with pending special immigrant visas currently awaiting State Department approval. Thousands more overseas — including individuals who worked closely as interpreters and guides for U.S. forces — are unable to access the system.
Officials from the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the host of Tuesday’s event, said their focus now is to keep the issue in the public eye even as other congressional chaos dominates national headlines.
For example, Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., and a key voice on recent legislative efforts, spoke briefly at the press conference but excused himself early to deal with the House leadership fight unfolding in his chamber this week.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and one sponsor of the Afghan Adjustment Act, said she still believes that Congress can enact some reforms even as it juggles a full-year budget for government operations in fiscal 2024 and another potential government shutdown threat in late November.
“We’re not going to give up,” she said. “Everyone knows this is the right thing to do. We just have to find the right vehicle to get it through the Senate.”
The Afghan Adjustment Act, which would clear up pathways to legal residency for evacuees and enhance vetting of those who seek it, has stalled in Congress since early 2021. The plan would also extend special immigrant visa eligibility to Afghans who fought alongside U.S. armed forces but never formally signed contracts with U.S. government entities, including Afghan special operations troops and female members of the Afghan National Security Forces.
In recent months, lawmakers have also introduced related measures designed to advance portions of that ambitious plan. But conservatives in the Senate have voiced long-term security concerns, and House lawmakers have not taken any meaningful steps on the plans.
Advocates said they’ll keep pushing for solutions for as long as it takes. Akbari said she and her fellow Afghan veterans are trying to stay positive through the fight.
“Most of us still have families back in Afghanistan,” she said. “They live in danger every day, so it’s hard for us to focus on things like English classes and finding jobs and handling our immigration paperwork.
“So, we try to stay hopeful. But it’s really hard as we keep waiting for answers.”
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.