On a sun-bleached day in mid-August 2021, thousands of Afghan men, women and children swarmed Kabul International Airport in a mass, scaling barbed-wire fences, desperate to board any flight that would take them out of the country — and away from the terror that they were sure would come to their lives under the Taliban. There was even a violent skirmish among Afghan Air Force personnel on the day of the airlift.
The men in that clash, who tried to claw their way onto a bug-like U.S. helicopter, were just a handful of the hundreds of thousands of Afghans who had worked for the U.S. military or U.S.-backed media in its 20-year war with the Taliban. Most of these now-vulnerable men and women quickly went into hiding, fearing for their lives. That’s what one man, whom we’ll call Ahmad, did. (He asked not to have his real name used for fear of retribution.)
In the immediate chaos after Aug. 15, on a cooler than normal day, the Taliban came for Ahmad. Frantic, he leaped out a window, landing on pavement and breaking a number of bones.
Aged in his early 40s, Ahmad has three young children and a wife — a former teacher, who, since that summer, cannot leave the house without her husband or another male relative, due to Taliban rules. While Ahmad was dealing with his severe injuries, the Taliban forced him into service. His pilot training by the Americans, which included a year of education in the U.S., is invaluable to the Taliban, who conscripted him to teach its men. With no other choice, that is what Ahmad has been doing for more than a year and a half, all the while working beneath the sword of Damocles. He has not been paid for a few months.
The Taliban assassinated at least seven pilots before the fall of Kabul in August 2021. Now, they regularly threaten Ahmad with death.
“We could cut your head off,” his Taliban masters tell him every day.
“He is a kind of prisoner,” said his sister-in-law, who lives safely in a Western country. She also spoke to New Lines on condition of anonymity, relaying transcribed questions back and forth to her brother in Afghanistan.
“I feel frightened, hopeless, insecure and mentally tortured,” Ahmad said. “I have no hope for my family’s future, as the situation is getting worse rather than better here. I feel I will not return to my family every time I leave my house. I am even scared of every knock on the door.”
A soft-spoken man, Ahmad describes his life as one of hardship — financially, mentally and physically. As someone who worked with the U.S. military, he doesn’t understand why the U.S. isn’t trying to get him out of Afghanistan.
“They promised that they will never leave us alone in bad situations,” he said. But, he added, “I think I am yesterday’s news and they completely forgot about me.”
The U.S. immigration system has left tens of thousands of Afghans like Ahmad in limbo, not even bothering to respond to applicants, despite the fact that Afghans have paid $19 million in fees to the U.S. program for humanitarian parole between March 2021 and March 2022.
In April 2022, the U.S. lack of life-saving assistance for Afghans who’d worked with its military side by side for decades would come screeching into focus. Just a couple of months after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine at the end of February 2022, the Biden administration created a humanitarian parole program called “Uniting for Ukraine,” which has allowed for a remarkably smooth — and fee-less — process to enter the U.S. for up to 100,000 Ukrainians. Both Afghans and Ukrainians can apply for parole, which allows refugees to stay in the U.S. for up to two years but with no path to permanent residency.
While they may look similar on the surface, the parole programs aren’t created equally. Uniting for Ukraine does not require any fees, or that applicants have interviews at any consulate. Nor are Ukrainians obliged to prove they are being specifically targeted with violence — all of which Afghans must do. Afghans also have to travel to a third country to join the long line of applicants for parole.
And even when Afghans have jumped through all these hoops, “Those applications are not being acted on,” said Sunil Varghese, the policy director of the New York-based International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), “because the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) maintains that without a government presence in Afghanistan, they cannot process those applications.” This is despite there being nothing in the law that requires a face-to-face interview to apply for parole, various immigration lawyers said.
For Afghans like Ahmad who are seeking refuge in the U.S., there are three options: a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV), refugee admission through what is known as the Priority 2 program (P-2) and humanitarian parole. Afghans are eligible for an SIV if they worked for the U.S. government or military for at least 12 months. The P-2 program is for those who do not meet the SIV’s 12-month service requirement and for Afghans who worked for a U.S.-based media organization or NGO. SIV and P-2 holders are eligible for employment authorization, certain public benefits and permanent legal status, but they need to prove that they have demonstrated “faithful and valuable service to the U.S. government.” Humanitarian parole — called Operation Allies Welcome for Afghans — is for people with urgent humanitarian needs, and has less strict eligibility requirements than other programs. While it is purported to offer a faster application process, it is temporary and does not provide the same benefits as the SIV and P-2, such as employment authorization, public benefits and a path to permanent legal status.
From July 2021 to May 2022, the U.S. granted parole to 123 Afghans out of a total 66,000 who applied, according to USCIS, as reported by Reveal, from The Center for Investigative Reporting. Just 8,000 applications were even processed in that period. Yet, as of February, 117,000 Ukrainians have come to the U.S. under the parole program with no problem — and with no fees or a requirement to have a face-to-face interview with a U.S. consular employee.
Two requests for comment from USCIS went unanswered.
No one spoken to by New Lines begrudges Ukrainians for having a frictionless pathway into the U.S; it’s more that they want to see other programs, like those for Afghans, rise to match Uniting for Ukraine.
“What we want is for everyone to be treated like that,” said Simon Adams, head of the Center for Victims of Torture, a nonprofit based in Minnesota. “We want to harness that positive vibe, the way that people are feeling and responding around the Ukrainians. Let’s just extend that to other categories.”
So why isn’t that happening?
The differences between the Ukraine and Afghanistan immigration policies are stark, and the reason seems insidious. While Ukrainians are being allowed into the country with few restrictions, Afghans have to pay bank-breaking fees of $575 each (Afghans have an average annual income of $369, according to the most recent World Bank data), just to receive no response, for years. What is the difference in terms of letting these desperate people from war-torn countries in? When we put this question to Mariko Hirose, IRAP’s U.S. litigation director, asking if it was racism, she replied, “Completely.”
Yet it is also as complicated as the political will it takes to make some lives easier than others.
“We’ve seen through the Ukrainian program what the U.S. government can accomplish if they want to,” said Hirose.
Varghese said the program for Ukrainians is better than analogous U.S. immigration plans for other nationalities, and that the same (lack of) restrictions should be afforded to other desperate immigrants. “The administration should, sooner than later — immediately — announce a similar program for Afghans,” he said. “It should be similarly streamlined. It should be similarly efficient. It should be similarly quick.”
Instead, hundreds of thousands of Afghans have paid millions of dollars and are still waiting for any kind of response from the U.S. government. Human Rights Watch research indicates the Taliban killed over 100 people in the first few months after they took over.
“I tried to contact [Ahmad’s] colleagues — generals, Americans working with him,” said Ahmad’s sister-in-law. “They said we cannot do anything. Some of them even got upset, like, ‘Why are you contacting us?’ I was messaging them on Instagram, WhatsApp, et cetera. They didn’t respond.” And this is how far an Afghan living in a Western country, speaking English, with money for fees, has gotten.
A number of lawyers and immigration experts New Lines spoke to expressed their thinking as to why the Afghan and Ukrainian programs differ so much. One difference that should matter, but apparently doesn’t, is the moral responsibility the U.S. has for its Afghan counterparts, who fought alongside America’s soldiers for 20 years. Other than that, the divergences are obvious: One country is being brazenly attacked by U.S. nemesis Russia, while the other is exceedingly poor and situated in a region the U.S. does not trust and says contains terrorists. One country’s people are majority white and Christian. The other’s are majority brown and Muslim.
Uniting for Ukraine shows how straightforward the process can be. “So why can’t Afghans have the same?” Hirose asked. “There are a number of pathways that can be used and could be used much more effectively, to actually provide safe passage for Afghans, including those who work for the U.S. government.”
“It really comes down to lack of political commitment to the Afghans,” she added.
There were an astonishing 27.1 million refugees in the world as of June 2022, the U.N. refugee agency reports. Between the wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the instability in sub-Saharan Africa, Myanmar, Venezuela, Haiti and much of Central America, hundreds of thousands of people have sought legal refuge in the United States in the last few years. Then Russia invaded Ukraine, displacing millions more.
On March 13, the Biden administration announced that it would be extending the stay of Ukrainians — about 18,000 of them — who came before April 25, 2022, by another year. (Any Ukrainians who applied after that date have already been given two years.)
But, while these Ukrainians in the U.S. can now stay longer, the two-year limit for a stay in this country for many Afghans who left their country during the airlift under the designation of humanitarian parole — about 89,000 of them — was going to expire in August, two years after the fall of Kabul. On Friday, the administration announced that Afghans already in the U.S. can reapply for temporary parole, which does nothing to help the Afghans stranded under the Taliban.
“There’s this hope that the situation in Ukraine will resolve, and, perhaps at the end of the probation period, they’ll be able to go back,” said Varghese. “I don’t know if that’s true or not for Afghans. That’s why we need to have some sort of adjustment bill to legalize [the parolees’] status.” While proposed legislation to do this was introduced in Congress last August, the bill has lingered.
And because members of Congress represent U.S. citizens, it’s important to know that, by and large, Americans feel “more favorably” toward Ukrainian refugees than Afghans, according to an April 2022 study from the Empathy Research Lab, a consortium of American political science professors.
In terms of the disparities in the U.S. immigration programs, Adams said, “I think the racial part of it is true, but it operates in both a crude way, and then in a probably more subtle and kind of less offensive way.” The crude version, Adams said, is, “Who are these brown-skinned Muslim people who I can’t relate to and might be a terrorist threat?” In the more subtle way, he said, the disparity comes down to “What does the average American know about Afghans?”
Adams explains that there is perhaps an element of familiarity for Americans when it comes to a certain kind of immigrant, like white Ukrainians, which allows white Americans to say, “Oh, they look vaguely like me. They’re wearing clothes that look like the clothes that I wear.” Even, “You know, the president’s got a movie on Netflix.”
This feeling isn’t novel. In 2015, four years into the war in Syria, polling by Gallup found that a majority of Americans — 60% — disapproved of accepting up to 10,000 Syrian refugees. Compare that with the nearly 80% of Americans in 2022 who approved of accepting up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees.
And, if the racial divide isn’t clear enough, a 2016 survey by the Empathy Research Lab found that during the height of the Syrian refugee crisis, Americans preferred Christian Syrian refugees to Muslim ones.
As chaos engulfed Kabul in that dismal August of 2021, USCIS had no plans in place to process Afghans who didn’t make it onto the evacuating planes. At first, the U.S. government gave great importance to the speed of processing applications for parole, “due to the emergency of the situation,” reports the American Immigration Council. But, the council says, emails it obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request show that as of Aug. 13, 2021, when the U.S. embassy in Kabul shut down, “the agency changed course and instructed staff to stop sending daily reports requesting expedited checks.”
Between all the USCIS staff emails the council acquired though that FOIA, it concluded that “the agency showed little urgency in processing humanitarian parole applications for those individuals who remained in Afghanistan, even as agency officials acknowledged that USCIS was receiving humanitarian parole applications at an ‘abnormally high rate.’”
While parole serves “as a lifesaving resource for eligible individuals,” writes the National Immigration Forum, a Washington-based advocacy group, USCIS says that Afghan applicants must jump through many hoops, including showing proof that they are at “imminent risk of harm.” How exactly does one do that with the Taliban in charge, when nearly no one’s life is safe anymore — especially those who worked for the U.S. military and other foreign groups? Realistically, who there does not face imminent harm? Considering the despair of so many people, does that really make the rate of applications “abnormal”?
“The government claimed the number of Afghan humanitarian parole applications was unexpected, and they were overwhelmed,” Laila Ayub, an immigration attorney and co-founder of Project ANAR, an Afghan community justice organization, told IRAP.
“Yet we see that they were able to make significant innovations for the Uniting for Ukraine parole program, removing some of the biggest hurdles keeping Afghans from accessing this pathway.”
She continued: “We have heard a lot of excuses from the government over the last few years and we know they are not reflective of what is possible. They actually can do more and are choosing not to.”
This apathy has been particularly painful for desperate Afghans like Ahmad. “I worked shoulder to shoulder with Americans,” he said, echoing the official slogan promoted by the NATO military campaign in Afghanistan. “I have no hope as I try to contact my foreign colleagues, consultants, mentors and generals.”
It seems, unfortunately, that he is right not to hold on to hope. As he bears daily humiliations and threats from the Taliban, the reply he has received from his former colleagues and partners is devastating in its silence: “I do not get any response,” he said.
In the days and weeks after the Taliban took Kabul in 2021, Americans seemed very much invested in the fate of their partners in war. But, by now, it seems — as has happened so many times before — the future of people very far from daily lives in America has fallen by the collective wayside.
“It now just kind of feels like the Afghans have sunk back to being just another bunch of abandoned people from a broken country,” Adams said. “And it’s kind of like, join the queue.”
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