WASHINGTON – The dramatic collapse of Afghanistan in August particularly affected Ahmad, an Afghan who arrived in the United States in 2015 on a special immigrant visa as a result of his work as a linguist for the United States military.
His wife, children and extended family, including a brother who served in an elite Afghan Special Forces unit, were trapped in the country. The Taliban were quick to look for them: fighters arrived at Ahmad’s parents, shot dead another of his brothers and took a third brother prisoner.
Today, the whole family is in hiding. Their only outcome is an application for humanitarian parole, which has been pending for weeks with the US citizenship and immigration services.
“I got sick from thinking too much about my family – there is nothing I can do for them,” said Ahmad, whose real name has been withheld for concern for the safety of his family. “And because of my service I did… I got them in trouble.”
After the collapse of the Afghan government, the United States evacuated tens of thousands of Afghans who passed through Taliban checkpoints on American military planes leaving the country. The majority now live in the United States on humanitarian parole, which allows the Department of Homeland Security to admit people without visas for “urgent humanitarian reasons or important public interest”.
But for the Afghans who couldn’t make their way through the crowds and scorching heat to the airport, or who gave up completely following a suicide bomber that killed dozens of people , applying for humanitarian parole with USCIS is one of the few escape options.
Other avenues include special immigrant visas, which only apply to narrow categories of people, and the traditional refugee admission program, which can take years and operates at a slower pace than it does. full speed ahead after cuts during the Trump administration and the COVID-19 pandemic.
At least 30,000 people have applied for humanitarian parole, including members of Ahmad’s extended family; his wife and children applied for Ahmad’s special immigrant visa as dependents. But lawyers involved in the process say the government has provided few details on how to mount a successful redress offer – and has issued several denials.
“Rather than extending it [parole] to help the Afghan allies who have been left behind, and all those people who have been stranded and family members who have been separated, ”said Mahsa Khanbabai, an immigration lawyer who assisted the family of ‘Ahmad to ask for parole,’ they did that halfway- It’s a job to say, ‘Okay, listen, here are some criteria for Afghans, but we’re not really going to do anything to help you.’ “
A dangerous ‘Catch-22’
Humanitarian parole applications are a less than ideal way to get relief, said lawyers and sponsors working to bring Afghan nationals to the United States. Applications must come from countries with active US consulates, requiring individuals to leave Afghanistan before they can apply.
The mechanism has not been used on such a scale since the end of the Vietnam War, when approximately 170,000 Vietnamese initially entered the United States as parolees.
However, once parole seekers flee the country, it may be more difficult for them to prove that they are in sufficient danger to merit humanitarian assistance.
“It’s a Catch-22 because by staying in Afghanistan they’re literally in very real danger,” said James Lockett, a former army officer studying law at Suffolk University and helping with the case. of Ahmad. “But by leaving Afghanistan they risk being denied humanitarian parole because they are no longer in danger.”
In a statement to CQ Roll Call, USCIS said it had expanded the staff dealing with humanitarian parole applications to 44 adjudicators and granted humanitarian parole to more than 120 Afghan nationals – a tiny fraction of the vast swath of Afghans seeking relief.
The agency stressed that the primary route for people seeking protection in the United States is through the traditional refugee admission program, a complex process involving referrals from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
In August, the State Department announced it would introduce priority refugee status for Afghans seeking relief. But it’s unclear how many Afghans were able to take advantage of this specialized route – as of November, only 41 Afghan refugees were resettled under the US refugee admissions program, according to department data.
“USCIS examines the specific facts of each case to determine if there is a distinct and well-documented reason to approve humanitarian parole for an individual,” the agency said. “Humanitarian parole is not intended to replace established refugee treatment channels such as the US refugee admission program. “
Individuals are more likely to deserve humanitarian parole, USCIS said, if they are immediately linked to a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident, have applied for special immigrant visas, or have links to Afghan nationals evacuated in Operation Allies Welcome, the government’s name for the rescue attempt.
“I don’t think they’re going to get a lot of approvals at all – a tiny fraction, at most, of what’s out there,” said Greg Siskind, another lawyer working on humanitarian parole cases.
Beyond special immigrant visas
Part of the problem is that the United States does not have a clear mechanism to come to the aid of the hundreds of thousands of Afghans who have some affiliation with the United States, or the West in general, and are in danger under the Taliban regime.
The special immigrant visa program, reserved for Afghan nationals like Ahmad who worked directly for the US military and diplomatic mission, does not necessarily apply to everyone who needs help.
More than half of Afghan nationals evacuated from the country and resettled in the United States on humanitarian parole are not eligible for special immigrant visas, the State Department said.
The narrow parameters of the SIV program exclude some Afghan nationals who were still essential to the US mission, said Jayston Harpster, a former military intelligence analyst working to secure relief for two Afghans who helped him gather intelligence. during its deployment.
Because the two men were not directly employed by the US government, they are not entitled to special immigrant visas. But the distinction meant little to the Taliban, who raided a man’s house the night the government fell, shortly after he hid in another location.
“We just have to recognize that when you say ‘Afghan allies’ there are so many people who don’t fit the narrow criteria of this program,” Harpster said.
Harpster tried to get the other man and his family to the airport during the chaotic days of the evacuation, an experience he called “the most terrifying time of my life.” After two days of waiting outside the airport, the man’s pregnant woman and her two-year-old child were hospitalized with dehydration.
The two men and their families have since fled to Pakistan, where they are awaiting a decision on their humanitarian parole applications.
Another difficulty arises from the evidence required to successfully apply for humanitarian parole.
“I don’t have a Taliban memo saying ‘Yes, we’re going to kill you,’” Harpster said. “So if they chose this standard, it’s because they choose to pretend it’s a realistic position.”
Although some Republicans have expressed concerns about the control of Afghan refugees, the resettlement on the whole has been largely bipartisan. In September, Congress approved $ 6.3 billion for Operation Allies Welcome, and earlier this month provided an additional $ 7 billion.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have urged the Biden administration to take further steps to secure relief for Afghans who did not leave the country during the tumultuous withdrawal.
“We have heard some of these concerns and are trying to get answers,” Sen said. Jeanne Shaheen, DN.H., a longtime champion of the Special Immigrant Visa Program. “I don’t have answers for you today, but I heard it was a real problem.”
Sense. Richard blumenthal, D-Conn., Joni Ernst, R-Iowa and Lindsey graham, RS.C., introduced an amendment to the Defense Authorization Bill for Fiscal Year 2022 to prioritize SIV evacuation seekers and referrals to the U.S. Refugee Referral Program. Their measure, which was not included in the bill, would have allowed refugee referrals to initiate their claims while in Afghanistan, a key step that could make the traditional refugee admission program more accessible to Afghans. hidden.
“I think there needs to be more proactive and creative action to get charter flights out,” Blumenthal said. “Even though we have no military or diplomatic presence there, it is imperative to allow our at-risk Afghan allies to leave.
Ernst, who led the 24 women senators in a letter to the Biden administration urging more protection for Afghan women and girls, said the White House has gone ‘radio silent’ on Afghan evacuation strategies remaining.
“We need the administration to step up and start working with us on these opportunities,” she said.
In the meantime, Ahmad’s family continues to wait. They have food delivered every week, but they cannot leave their refuge, where the curtains are always drawn.
“My family keeps calling me and they cry,” Ahmad said. “We are currently in a critical situation. “
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