When the Taliban retook control of Afghanistan, tens of thousands of US allies and their relatives were left behind after evacuation flights in the country concluded.
Many at risk in Afghanistan have been hoping to reach the US, one of the world's leading countries for refugee resettlement, but numerous roadblocks to acquiring security visas have left Afghans stuck in limbo en route to a new home.
R., who worked for the United States, and then the US-backed Afghan government, is among those left behind. He says working as a US ally made him a target when the Taliban took over.
In the days that followed, he reached out to all of his US contacts, and he and his family returned multiple times to the Kabul airport, but ultimately, were unable to make it through the crowds outside.
R. — whose full name isn’t being used for his safety — is now in hiding.
In September, R. learned he had received final approval to move to the United States, but this long-awaited news has so far been of little use to the former US government employee.
Instead, he’s been shuttling between offices and homes of friends and family for months with his wife and two children, unable to find a way to pick up their visas from an American Consulate.
He’s unable to plan ahead and gets very little sleep at night.
“Mostly during the night, I check outside. I check around. I think, rethink,” said R., who first applied for relocation under the special immigrant visa (SIV) program in 2014.
R.’s situation is complicated — with no clear path to safety.
When R. and his family first fled their home in August, he thought they could get on a US evacuation flight and leave within a week, so they didn’t pack warm clothes. But they couldn’t get into the airport after multiple attempts. Now, the weather has turned cold and he has had to use some of the family’s limited funds to buy blankets and jackets.
Since the closure of the US Embassy in Kabul and the end of the formal evacuation in August, virtually all paths from Afghanistan to the United States now include some steps that must be completed in third countries.
But US overseas consulates have not shown flexibility to the exceptional circumstances of Afghans, who may be admitted to third countries on transit visas valid for only a couple of days, explained R.’s attorney, Jennifer Patota, of the International Refugee Assistance Project.
Afghans “don't have the time to enter the country, then contact the embassy to ask for the case to be transferred,” Patota explained. They must then wait for an appointment to go pick up the visa, she noted.
In some cases, she said US overseas consulates have refused to accept case transfers even before an individual has reached a third country or to waive other requirements, like medical exams.
“There's kind of a multitude of issues everywhere we turn. ... We've been in this kind of a Catch-22 situation where he can't get a visa to enter many of the countries without proof that he has an American visa in some instances, but he can't get the American visa until he can get into the other country.”
“There's kind of a multitude of issues everywhere we turn,” she said, referring to R.’s case. “We've been in this kind of a Catch-22 situation where he can't get a visa to enter many of the countries without proof that he has an American visa in some instances, but he can't get the American visa until he can get into the other country.”
In July, Congress authorized waiving medical exams for Afghans eligible for special immigrant visas in order to speed departures.
“It's this lack of communication and coordination among departments and agencies that is causing life-or-death situations for the people that are caught up in it,” Patota said.
A State Department spokesperson wrote in an email to The World:
“We recognize that it is currently extremely difficult for Afghans to obtain a visa to a third country or find a way to enter a third country.”
“Developing [...] processing alternatives will take time and will depend on cooperation from third countries, as well as the Taliban,” the spokesperson added.
Others at risk, including some who have managed to enter countries in proximity to Afghanistan have faced delays and barriers.
Leila Nadir of the Afghan American Artists and Writers Association has been trying to help an academic, who had reached Pakistan, to come to the US to take a short-term appointment at her university in Rochester, New York.
“While [my colleague] is sitting in Pakistan, waiting for this interview, his Pakistani visa is running out. And so, in about one to two more weeks, he's going to have to return back to Afghanistan ... Even the progress we’ve made gets reversed.”
“While he's sitting in Pakistan, waiting for this interview, his Pakistani visa is running out. And so, in about one to two more weeks, he's going to have to return back to Afghanistan,” Nadir said. “Even the progress we’ve made gets reversed.”
So far, only one person in the group she’s helping has reached the US.
Of the tens of thousands that the US did manage to evacuate in August, many have spent weeks living on overseas and domestic military bases.
“Afghan families are basically sleeping outside in tents. It's getting cold, you know, on these military bases in the United States, and so, it's important to get people resettled.”
“Like [at] Fort Bliss, at Quantico in Virginia,” said Yael Schacher, senior US advocate at Refugees International. “Afghan families are basically sleeping outside in tents. It's getting cold, you know, on these military bases in the United States, and so, it's important to get people resettled.”
She says the US government is pushing to get these evacuees resettled in communities before Thanksgiving, with help from the private sector. This should make room for more of those overseas to be relocated to the US, she noted.
But many are entering into another sort of limbo, admitted not as refugees, but under a temporary status known as humanitarian parole — which is faster to grant in a crisis situation than refugee status.
In August’s budget bill, Congress gave Afghan parolees some of the same benefits refugees get, including financial support and access to English classes.
However, humanitarian parole lasts just two years, with no path to permanent residency.
In addition, while focusing resources on processing evacuees, the US government has let other applications from at-risk Afghans languish, Schacher said.
A US Immigration and Citizenship Services (USCIS) spokesperson, Victoria Palmer, wrote in an email to The World that the agency, which normally receives fewer than 2,000 requests for humanitarian parole a year, had received nearly 20,000 applications from Afghans since August. They granted 93.
Separately, more than 67,000 evacuated Afghan nationals have entered the country under humanitarian parole.
“USCIS is actively assigning additional staffing resources to assist with the current parole-application workload,” Palmer wrote, and “issued an agency-wide request for volunteers to help process applications […] The agency will have significantly more staff assigned to this workload in the coming weeks.”
For those admitted under humanitarian parole, additional steps will be required to remain in the US, particularly for those who have not already begun the SIV process.
“They're going to have to apply for asylum or other forms of immigration relief through our immigration system, which could take a very long time,” said Schacher of Refugees International.
The asylum application is “very labor-intensive,” she noted, requiring extensive documentation, yet many Afghans were told to destroy their documents back in Afghanistan.
Schacher’s organization and other advocates are pushing for legislation known as the Afghan adjustment act that would create a special pathway to permanent residency for this group.
Stewart Verdery, a political consultant who works with clients including the National Immigration Forum, says it’s difficult to get any immigration bill through Congress.
“I'm hopeful, though, that the bipartisan … angst about how the Afghan pullout … unfolded will allow this issue to be separated."
“I'm hopeful, though, that the bipartisan … angst about how the Afghan pullout … unfolded will allow this issue to be separated. Because it is time-sensitive; it is a discrete population.” He also notes that a precedent has already been set with past legislation impacting relocated Cubans and South Vietnamese.
Meanwhile, Patota said that her client R.’s situation is not only a result of a chaotic evacuation, but also of years of problems processing the visas of Afghans in need of protection.
“The US, I know, is working behind the scenes to try to figure out how to get people out, but it's not happening fast enough. And it could have happened in a much more orderly and safe fashion if they had just planned for this in coordination with the drawdown,” she said.
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