By Kathreen Harrison

Afghans living in the U.S., as well as immigration attorneys and legal volunteers across the country, have been working feverishly since August to secure a legal pathway to safety for tens of thousands of people left in Afghanistan who are at particular risk of persecution at the hands of the Taliban. These Afghans were not lucky enough to make it out of the country on one of the hastily organized U.S. evacuation flights that carried approximately 80,000 Afghans to safety during our disastrous withdrawal from the country. Yet the lives of these Afghans are in danger in Afghanistan.

Since August 31, the U.S. government has continued some evacuation flights, but these are primarily for U.S. citizens, green card holders, and others who possess Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) approved after years of processing – not for civilians who performed services such as interpretation, transportation, road construction, airport work, mapping, and intelligence work for U.S. contractors. Or for those with pending SIV applications. The U.S. government has not articulated plans for the safeguarding of these people, who had always been assured the U.S. would protect them should Ashraf Ghani’s government fall.

They performed essential services, and worked for organizations funded by the U.S. Others left behind included human rights defenders, journalists, women’s rights and education advocates, those considered “westernized,” those with family in the U.S. – and therefore considered enemies by the Taliban. Many of these people are now in hiding; some have already died or been disappeared. According to Human Rights Watch, 100 former police and intelligence officers in four provinces were murdered in the span of three months by Taliban forces. These “enemies” of the Taliban are traumatized, and suffer from a lack of adequate food. And options for getting out of the country are severely limited for them at this point.

When Ghani’s government first fell, a national call went out among lawyers to do something to rescue those who had helped the U.S. war effort. “Humanitarian parole” (HP) is one of various parole categories specified in U.S. immigration law. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) website states: “You may apply for humanitarian parole if you have a compelling emergency and there is an urgent humanitarian reason or significant public benefit to allowing you to temporarily enter the United States.”

Humanitarian parole permitted the emergency rescue of 130,000 Vietnamese people in 1975 after the Vietnam War and 6,600 Iraqi people in 1996 after the Persian Gulf War.  If any group of people would seem to qualify for HP, immigration lawyers felt it would be people currently living in Afghanistan with ties to the U.S.

Until November, members of the national network, including Catherine Lindgren, Afghanistan Project Attorney for the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project (ILAP), were optimistic that USCIS would process humanitarian parole applications in a timely fashion. And lawyers across the nation – including at ILAP and the Refugee and Human Rights Clinic (RHRC) at the University of Maine School of Law – scrambled to help Afghans in the U.S. fill out the applications on behalf of their family members back home. The application for each individual required a sponsor and a $575 fee, and Afghans living in the U.S., including in Maine, did everything they could to raise the funds needed and locate sponsors.

Things started off slowly on the USCIS end of things, and applications for HP began to pile up. At first, the excuse USCIS gave for slow processing was that it was understaffed, with only six workers facing piles of tens of thousands of applications. But then 44 new workers were hired and trained, and the backlog continued to grow.

“Many people in Maine and around the country are trying to save relatives in Afghanistan,” said Lindgren. “I can’t stress enough the severity of the situation on the ground in Afghanistan. It’s truly life or death. People wake up every day hoping their loved ones are alive … we have already lost clients [to violence],” she said.

Then, in November, during a webinar attended by hundreds of people across the country, the USCIS announced that instead of easing the way for vulnerable people to get out of harm’s way quickly, it was making the standard of proof needed for approval of an HP application for Afghans higher. The news was met with shock and outrage by immigration lawyers, military veterans, and members of other groups. Meanwhile, USCIS has collected millions of dollars in application fees, which it is sitting on.

The new standard requires documentation naming an individual and corroborating specific risk facing that individual, such as reports from a third-party source, like the media, or “a reputable human rights organization.” Lawyers point out that such proof is in essence a death sentence, since the Taliban have repeatedly gone after known allies of the U.S. And the standard is so high, it has basically made humanitarian parole useless as a tool for getting desperate people to safety. The USCIS site instead encourages Afghans to apply for refugee status under the regular route with the UNHCR. However, this process takes years, and people whose lives are in danger don’t have years to wait.

“With all traditional immigration options failing to meet the urgency of the situation, we are desperate for other means of saving Afghans at significant imminent risk because of their ties to the United States. Even if humanitarian parole has historically been used on a limited basis, this is a crisis, and the Department of Homeland Security has discretion to parole,” said Lindgren.

Anna Welch of RHRC said, “We are incredibly disappointed in how the Department of Homeland Security and USCIS more specifically is treating humanitarian parole applications filed by more than 30,000 Afghans who are in grave danger following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.  After waiting months to process these applications (and after processing millions of dollars in application fees), USCIS has just begun to adjudicate these cases. And nearly across the board, they are denying them.  Moreover, USCIS is implementing further restrictive criteria for eligibility and applying it retroactively.  These changes will almost certainly be the death knell for the majority of cases, which represented the last glimmer of hope for many individuals in dire need of rescue given their ties to the U.S.”

On December 14, a long list of organizations (including Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, and Mainers for Accountable Leadership Action), legal services providers (including ILAP), resettlement agencies, law firms, and law school clinics, sent a joint letter to the Biden Administration to “express our extreme concern regarding the exclusionary approach the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has adopted towards over 30,000 Afghans who have applied for Humanitarian Parole to the United States.” The signatories spoke of a “moral imperative to protect vulnerable Afghans.”

“This is a crisis,” said Lindgren. “That is not hyperbole. Every day, attorneys across the country learn that clients have been disappeared, or that they were taken and tortured, or found with a bullet in their head. This preventable crisis was brought about by the failure of our government to plan for and provide for the safety of our Afghan allies.”

Meanwhile, in Maine and elsewhere, the Afghan community – already traumatized by the suffering of their relatives – must now face the collapse of their hopes. For so many months they worked hard to prepare complete humanitarian parole applications on behalf of their relatives. Now they fear those applications will never be granted. “People feel voiceless, as if no one is listening. Afghans wonder, ‘Why don’t people care?’” said Lindgren.

Meanwhile, winter has arrived in Afghanistan, but the Taliban have not paid salaries in over 100 days, and families are subsisting on one meal a day of tea and bread. Maine’s Afghans are trying to help their relatives make it through the winter by sending hard-earned money abroad. They don’t know what else to do while they wait to see what happens with the HP applications they worked so hard to file on behalf of family members.

Some members of Congress are pushing for more to be done. For example, Senator Blumenthal of Connecticut has called on the Biden Administration to appoint an “evacuation czar” who would be responsible for bringing targeted Afghans to safety.

“The only hope is to pressure the government to change its policy. We need a grassroots campaign to shine a light on this devastating humanitarian crisis,” said Lindgren.

To contact Maine’s Afghan Community to offer help: [email protected]