Afghanistan’s dramatic collapse in August hit particularly hard for Ahmad, an Afghan who arrived in the United States in 2015 on a special immigrant visa following his work as a linguist for the U.S. military.
His wife, children and extended family, including a brother who served in an elite Afghan special forces unit, were trapped in the country. It wasn’t long before the Taliban went looking for them: Fighters arrived at Ahmad’s parents’ house, shot another of his brothers and took a third brother captive.
Today, the entire family is in hiding. Their only way out is an application for humanitarian parole, which has been pending for weeks with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
“I got sick from too much thinking about my family — I cannot do anything for them,” said Ahmad, whose real name has been withheld out of concern for his family’s safety. “And because of my service that I did … I put them in trouble.”
After the Afghan government’s collapse, the United States evacuated tens of thousands of Afghans who made it past Taliban checkpoints onto U.S. military planes leaving the country. The majority now live in the U.S. under humanitarian parole, which allows the Department of Homeland Security to admit individuals without visas for “urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit."
But for Afghans who were unable to fight their way through crowds and blistering heat to the airport, or who gave up completely following a suicide attack that killed dozens of people, affirmatively applying for humanitarian parole with USCIS is one of very few options for escape.
Other pathways include special immigrant visas, which only apply to narrow categories of people, and the traditional refugee admissions program, which can take years and is operating at less than full speed after cutbacks 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 have applied as dependents of Ahmad’s special immigrant visa. But lawyers involved in the process say the government has provided few details on how to mount a successful bid for relief — and has issued multiple denials.
“Rather than expanding it [parole] to help the Afghan allies that have been left behind, and all of these people that have been stranded and family members that have been separated,” said Mahsa Khanbabai, an immigration attorney who helped Ahmad’s family apply for parole, “they did this half-assed job of saying, ‘Okay, well, look, here are some criteria for Afghans, but we're not going to really do anything to help you.’”
A dangerous ’Catch-22’
Humanitarian parole applications are a less-than-ideal way to secure relief, said lawyers and sponsors working to bring Afghan nationals to the United States. Applications must come from countries with active U.S. consulates, requiring individuals to leave Afghanistan before they can apply.
The mechanism has not been used on such a grand scale since the end of the Vietnam War, when around 170,000 Vietnamese people initially entered the U.S. as parolees.
However, once parole applicants have fled the country, they may have a harder time proving they’re endangered enough to merit humanitarian relief.
“It's a Catch-22, because by remaining in Afghanistan, they are literally in very real danger,” said James Lockett, a former Army officer studying law at Suffolk University and helping with Ahmad’s case. “But by leaving Afghanistan, they risk being denied humanitarian parole, because they're no longer in threat.”
In a statement to CQ Roll Call, USCIS said it had expanded the staff processing humanitarian parole applications to 44 adjudicators, and had 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 pathway for individuals seeking protection in the U.S. is through the traditional refugee admissions program, a complex process involving referrals from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
In August, the State Department announced it would introduce a priority refugee status for Afghans seeking relief. But it was not clear how many Afghans have been able to take advantage of this specialized pathway — in November, just 41 refugees from Afghanistan were resettled under the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, according to department data.
“USCIS reviews the specific facts of each case to determine if there is a distinct, well-documented reason to approve humanitarian parole for an individual,” the agency said. “Humanitarian parole is not intended to replace established refugee processing channels such as the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.”
Individuals are more likely to merit humanitarian parole, USCIS said, if they are immediately related to a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident, have applied for special immigrant visas, or have ties to Afghan nationals evacuated during Operation Allies Welcome, the government’s name for the rescue effort.
“I don't think they're going to get very many approvals at all — a tiny fraction, at the 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 U.S. doesn’t have a clear mechanism to provide relief to hundreds of thousands of Afghans who have some affiliation with the U.S., or the West in general, and are at risk under Taliban rule.
The special immigrant visa program, reserved for Afghan nationals like Ahmad who worked directly for the U.S. military and diplomatic mission, does not necessarily apply to everyone in need of relief.
More than half of the Afghan nationals evacuated from the country and resettled in the U.S. under humanitarian parole do not qualify for special immigrant visas, the State Department said.
The narrow parameters of the SIV program exclude some Afghan nationals who were still vital to the U.S. mission, said Jayson Harpster, a former Army intelligence analyst working to secure relief for two Afghans who helped him gather intelligence during his deployment.
Because the two men weren’t directly employed by the U.S. government, they don’t qualify for special immigrant visas. But that distinction means little to the Taliban, who raided one man’s house the night the government fell, shortly after he went into hiding in another location.
“We just need to acknowledge when you say, ‘Afghan allies,’ there's so many people that don't fit the narrow criteria of that 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 in my whole life.” After two days waiting outside the airport, the man’s pregnant wife and two-year-old child were hospitalized for dehydration.
Both men and their families have since fled to Pakistan, where they are awaiting a decision on their applications for humanitarian parole.
Another difficulty stems from the evidence required to mount a successful claim for humanitarian parole.
“I don't have a memo from the Taliban saying ‘Yep, we are going to kill you,’” Harpster said. “So if they've chosen that standard, it's because they're choosing to pretend that that is a realistic stance.”
Although some Republicans have raised concerns with the vetting of Afghan refugees, the resettlement overall has been broadly bipartisan. In September, Congress approved $6.3 billion for Operation Allies Welcome, and earlier this month provided another $7 billion.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have urged the Biden administration to take additional steps to secure relief for Afghans who did not make it out of the country during the tumultuous withdrawal.
“We have heard some of those concerns, and we're trying to get some answers,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., a longtime champion of the special immigrant visa program. “I don't have any answers for you today, but I have heard that that's a real problem.”
Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Joni Ernst, R-Iowa and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., introduced an amendment to the fiscal 2022 defense authorization bill to prioritize for evacuation SIV applicants and referrals to the U.S. refugee referral program. Their measure, which was not included in the bill, would have enabled refugee referrals to initiate their applications while in Afghanistan, a key step that could make the traditional refugee admissions program more accessible to Afghans in hiding.
“I think there is a need for more proactive and creative action to enable charter flights to leave,” Blumenthal said. “Even though we have no military or diplomatic presence there, it's a moral imperative that we enable our at-risk Afghan allies to depart.”
Ernst, who led all 24 female 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 strategies for evacuating remaining Afghans.
“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 weekly, but they cannot leave their safe house, where the curtains are always drawn.
“My family keeps calling me, and they are crying,” Ahmad said. “We are in a critical situation right now.”