More than 28,000 Afghans have applied for temporary entry into the US for humanitarian reasons since the Taliban took over Afghanistan and led to the chaotic US withdrawal, but according to federal officials, only 100 of them were approved. Is.
The US Citizenship and Immigration Services has battled a growing number of applicants for a program known as humanitarian parole, but has promised it is increasing staff to address the growing backlog.
Afghan families in the US and the immigrant groups supporting them say the slow pace of approval threatens the safety of their loved ones, who face an uncertain future under repressive Islamic rule because of their ties to the West.
“We are concerned for their lives,” says Safdie, a Massachusetts resident whose family is sponsoring 21 relatives seeking humanitarian parole. “Sometimes, I think there will be a day when I wake up and get a call saying they’re no more.”
The 38-year-old US permanent resident, who asked not to use her surname for fear of retaliation against her relatives, is hoping to bring her sister, her uncle and their families. She says the families are in hiding and their house was destroyed in a recent bombing because her uncle was a prominent local official before the Taliban came to power.
The slow pace of approval is disappointing because families have paid hundreds if not thousands of dollars in processing fees, says Chiara St. Pierre, an attorney at the International Institute of New England in Lowell, Massachusetts, the refugee resettlement agency that supports Safdie’s family. .
Each parole application comes with a $575 filing charge, meaning USCIS, which is primarily fee-funded, has been sitting on $11.5 million from Afghans alone over the past few months, he and other lawyers complain.
“People are desperate to get their families out,” said St. Pierre, whose nonprofit has filed more than 50 parole applications for Afghan citizens. “Aren’t we duty bound to those who are left behind, especially when they are complying with our immigration laws and exercising the options they have?”
USCIS spokeswoman Victoria Palmer said the agency has trained 44 additional employees to help deal with the surge in applications. As of mid-October, the agency only had six employees for the program.
Of the more than 100 approved as of July 1, some are still in Afghanistan and some have made it to third countries, she said, refusing to provide details. According to Palmer, the program typically receives less than 2,000 requests annually from all nationalities, of which USCIS approves an average of about 500.
Part of the challenge is that humanitarian parole requires an in-person interview, which means those in Afghanistan need to travel to another county with an operating US embassy or consulate. Initial screening has been approved. US officials have warned that this could take months, and there is no guarantee that parole will be granted even after the interview.
Humanitarian parole does not provide a route to lawful permanent residence or US immigration status. This is for foreigners who are unable to undergo asylum or other traditional visa procedures, but who need to leave their home country urgently.
The backlog of parole requests comes on top of more than 73,000 Afghan refugees who had already been expelled from the country as part of Operation Alley’s Welcome, which focused on Afghans who served as interpreters and others for the US government. worked in jobs.
According to Palmer, most have immigrated to the country and are living on military bases awaiting resettlement in communities across the country, although about 2,000 are still awaiting clearance to enter the US overseas.
But advocates question some of USCIS’ recent decisions for Afghan humanitarian parole, such as prioritizing applications from those already living in other countries. They say the approach contradicts the program’s aim to help those most at risk.
Sunil Varghese of the New York-based International Refugee Assistance Project said the Biden administration should instead focus on applications from women and girls, LGBTQ people and religious minorities in the country.
It could also do away with some of the financial documents required of applicants and their sponsors after Congress passed legislation making Afghan refugees eligible for refugee benefits, said Lindsey Gray, CEO of Vesina, a Texas-based group. , which trains lawyers and volunteers, said. on immigration matters.
Palmer did not directly address the critics, but said the agency, in each case, determines whether there is a “specific, well-documented reason” for granting humanitarian parole and whether there are other protections available. USCIS also considers whether the person already has a U.S. relationship, such as a family member with legal status or prior work for the U.S. government, among other factors.
Meanwhile, Afghans in the US have no choice but to wait and fret.
Bahara, another Afghani living in Massachusetts, who asked to withdraw her last name because of concerns for her family, says she feels guilt for her decision to leave her home country to attend a local university. has been deleted.
The 29-year-old boarded a plane on August 15, hours before the Taliban entered the capital of Kabul, one of the largest mass evacuations in US history.
“It was my dream, but it completely changed,” Bahara said, referring to enrolling in a US master’s degree program. “I couldn’t stop thinking about my family. I couldn’t sleep the first few weeks. All I did was cry, but it didn’t help.”
Bahara said his family is concerned because Taliban officials are meeting people like his father unannounced, who had originally worked with the US government after the terrorist group was ousted from power by the US after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. had worked with.
An American family is now sponsoring her family for humanitarian parole, giving Bahara hope while she grieves over the current situation in her country.
“I can’t believe how everything collapsed,” said Bahara, who founded a children’s literacy program in Afghanistan. “All the achievements and hard work just came to naught, and now people are suffering.”
Baktash Sharifi Baqi, a green-card holder who has been living in the US since 2014, was forced to take more drastic measures as Afghanistan disclosed early this summer.
The Philadelphia resident, who served as an interpreter for the US government, traveled back in August hoping to keep his wife, daughter, mother and godson safe.
But the family could not board any of the last commercial flights from Kabul. The rest have appealed to the US government to allow them to board one of the recently resumed charter flights.
Meanwhile, a friend in Louisiana has offered to serve as the family’s sponsor for a humanitarian parole application, even covering the expensive fees herself.
Bucky and his family are currently living with relatives in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. But they worry that their modest cash savings may be dwindling as the region gets colder and Afghanistan’s economic crisis deepens.
“We’re facing a really bad situation here,” Bucky said. “We need to get out.”