More than 28,000 Afghans have applied for temporary admission into the U.S. for humanitarian reasons since shortly before the Taliban recaptured Afghanistan and sparked a chaotic U.S. withdrawal, but only about 100 of them have been approved, according to federal officials.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has struggled to keep up with the surge in applicants to a little-used program known as humanitarian parole but promises it's ramping up staff to address the growing backlog.
Afghan families in the U.S. and the immigrant groups supporting them say the slow pace of approvals threatens the safety of their loved ones, who face an uncertain future under the repressive Islamist regime because of their ties to the West.
“We're worried for their lives,” says Safi, 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 receive a call saying that they're no more.”
The 38-year-old U.S. permanent resident, who asked that her last name not be used for fear of retribution against her relatives, is hoping to bring over her sister, her uncle and their families. She says the families have been in hiding and their house was destroyed in a recent bombing because her uncle had been a prominent local official before the Taliban took over.
The slow pace of approvals is frustrating because families have already 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, a refugee resettlement agency assisting Safi's family.
Each parole application comes with a $575 filing charge, meaning USCIS, which is primarily fee-funded, is sitting on some $11.5 million from Afghans in the last few months alone, she and other advocates complain.
“People are desperate to get their families out,” said St. Pierre, whose nonprofit has filed more than 50 parole applications for Afghan nationals. “Do we not owe a duty to the people left behind, especially when they are following our immigration laws and using the options they have?”
Victoria Palmer, a USCIS spokesperson, said the agency has trained 44 additional staff to help address the application surge. As of mid-October, the agency had only six staffers detailed to 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, declining to provide details. The program typically receives fewer than 2,000 requests annually from all nationalities, of which USCIS approves an average of about 500, according to Palmer.
Part of the challenge is that humanitarian parole requires an in-person interview, meaning those in Afghanistan need to travel to another county with an operating U.S. embassy or consulate after they've cleared the initial screening. U.S. officials warn it could then take months longer, and there's no guarantee parole will be granted, even after the interview.
Humanitarian parole doesn't provide a path to lawful permanent residence or confer U.S. immigration status. It's meant for foreigners who are unable to go through the asylum or other traditional visa processes, but who need to leave their country urgently.
The backlog of parole requests comes on top of the more than 73,000 Afghan refugees already evacuated from the country as part of Operations Allies Welcome, which was focused on Afghans who worked for the U.S. government as interpreters and in other jobs.
Most have arrived in the country and have been staying on military bases awaiting resettlement in communities across the country, though about 2,000 still remain overseas awaiting clearance to enter the U.S., according to Palmer.
Source: Voice of America