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The Biden administration announced Wednesday that it is designating Afghanistan for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) – granting protection from deportation to the tens of thousands of Afghans who were brought in without a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) in the wake of the frantic U.S withdrawal in August.

TPS protects nationals of designated countries living in the U.S. from potential deportation if they are eligible, allows them to apply for work permits and gives them the freedom to travel.

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It is based on three grounds: armed ongoing conflict, environmental disasters or „extraordinary and temporary conditions.“ The Afghanistan designation is for an initial 18 months, although designations are frequently extended, and only applies to those living in the U.S. as of Tuesday.

Evacuees wait to board a Boeing C-17 Globemaster III during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 23. 

Evacuees wait to board a Boeing C-17 Globemaster III during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 23.  (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Isaiah Campbell)

The U.S. has so far evacuated more than 76,000 Afghans out of the region, and has been engaged in a significant resettlement operation that has seen Afghans moved to military bases and ultimately to communities in states like Virginia, California and Texas. DHS estimates that only about 40% of those qualify for an SIV – available to those who worked for the U.S. or its allies during the 20-year conflict. The evacuations were supported by lawmakers in both parties, but have seen criticism over alleged flaws in the vetting system.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said that it designated Afghanistan due to ongoing armed conflict and extraordinary and temporary conditions that prevent the country’s nationals from returning safely. It cited not only the brutal Taliban control, but also a collapsing public sector, economic crisis, increasing crime and food and water insecurity.

„This TPS designation will help to protect Afghan nationals who have already been living in the United States from returning to unsafe conditions,“ DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement. „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.“

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Immigration hawks said the designation shows that many of the Afghans allowed in are ineligible for SIVs and accused Mayorkas of an „intention delay“ in designating Afghanistan for TPS to get more evacuees in.

„Secretary Mayorkas didn’t do it right after our botched withdrawal to protect Afghans already here, but instead because he wanted to increase the amount of Afghans in the country to benefit,“ RJ Hauman, head of government relations at the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) said in a statement. „Now he has a sufficient Afghan population on U.S. soil, and suddenly a TPS designation is warranted.“

It is the latest use of TPS by the administration, most recently designating or redesignating Ukraine, Sudan and South Sudan. Hauman said Mayorkas is „clearly committed to using every world conflict or weather event to grant de-facto amnesty through the deeply-flawed TPS program.“

„But this designation takes TPS abuse to the next level – purposely increasing an eligible population and then issuing the designation around six months later,“ he said. „Does Congress even care about this unprecedented abuse of authority?“

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Immigration advocates took a different view of the Afghanistan designation, presenting it as a welcome first step but also renewing calls for legislation to grant Afghans permanent residency in the United States.

„TPS is critically needed for Afghanistan. As we commend the Biden administration for this decision, we also urge a comprehensive response to the crisis in Afghanistan, including passing the Afghan Adjustment Act, and responding to other humanitarian and protection needs in line with the priorities of impacted people,“ Lisa Parisio, director of advocacy at the Catholic Legal Immigration Network (CLINIC) said in a statement.

Advocacy groups have also pushed for additional TPS designations: „The administration can and should use this readily-available tool more broadly, for all people in the U.S. in need of protection, including immediate TPS designations for Ethiopia, Cameroon and Mauritania,“ Parisio said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.