The United States has instituted the Humanitarian Parole system, which is designed to evacuate people from Afghanistan, without visa requirements, in case of “urgent humanitarian” needs or for “significant public benefit.”
Once in the US, these vulnerable Afghans can work with US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to pursue a path to legal immigration status and, ultimately, citizenship. The purpose is to get them to the safety of the US or another friendly country before they or their family members come to harm from the Taliban. After two decades, these extremist forces recaptured control of the government in the wake of the 2021 American withdrawal.
The typical evacuee would be someone who worked as an interpreter, driver, guide, or another type of aide for one or more branches of the American military stationed in Afghanistan. Any delay in processing their applications under the Humanitarian Parole program puts their safety, and that of their loved ones, in jeopardy.
Yet for too many of the Afghans who were counting on the US to deliver them from their enemies at home, the program has proven itself to be slow, precarious, and ineffective.
As of the fall of 2021, the US government was frantically working with hundreds of private organizations to build a resettlement system for endangered Afghan evacuees.
Over the decades the US military has been in Afghanistan, the process to provide safety to interpreters has lagged, often by years. Members of Congress and others interested in providing a haven for these people in danger have also spent years petitioning the USCIS for expedited processing in specific cases. Sometimes this has gotten results, but most often it has led to no avail. Now, after the US withdrawal, the numerous remaining Afghan translators and other aides, along with their families, are stuck in limbo—and at the mercy of the Taliban.
According to leaders at the nonprofit Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services in Connecticut, the agency is gearing up for an effort larger in scale and different from most of its previous work. These unprecedented emergency conditions mean that anyone committed to saving the lives of vulnerable Afghans is racing against time. Time they don’t have.
The lucky ones
In the months leading up to, and after, the US withdrawal in August 2021, numerous news accounts told a familiar story, like that of a man called “Reggie” (a nickname given him by the American troops he helped), who spoke to journalists from his home in Kabul.
In August 2021, Reggie waited in fear, wondering exactly when the Taliban were going to come for him because of his nine years of service as a US Army translator. The Taliban, he said, were regularly patrolling his neighborhood. At that time, Reggie was among the estimated tens of thousands of Afghans waiting for the backlog on special immigrant visas to clear.
These fears were, and are, real. Although the Taliban issued an initial statement saying there would be no reprisals against those who had aided Americans, it was—like most of their rhetoric—a hollow promise. In July 2021 a 32-year-old interpreter who had received death threats for having worked with the Americans for more than a year was ambushed by Taliban forces on an isolated roadway. According to witnesses, he was dragged from his vehicle and beheaded. That young husband and father of three is among the estimated hundreds of people branded “traitors” by the Taliban who have suffered violent deaths over the years of the American occupation and withdrawal.
After hearing the news story, a US veteran of the Afghanistan war remembered Reggie as the man who had helped him staunch the bleeding when he’d been wounded by a suicide bomber. This veteran was able to pull enough strings to get Reggie and his family on a flight out. They were among the 117,000 or so people lucky enough to get out before the final US exit transport on August 30.
The unlucky ones
The many others who haven’t been so lucky include the estimated 60,000 interpreters and other visa applicants whose cases for assistance languished as of the close of 2021. The State Department estimates that more than half of these people may be eligible to be evacuated immediately. This is the group that has already passed the most stringent initial intake screenings designed to filter out anyone who could pose a threat to the United States.
However, even applicants in extremely dangerous situations are being denied. This was the case with family members of an Afghan interpreter, already in the US, who had received commendations for the work he did alongside the Americans. His family fled to Pakistan in fear after the US withdrawal and were told they could apply for expedited entry due to their emergency. After months of waiting, the US refused their request.
As a September 2021 Wall Street Journal headline noted, most of the interpreters and other visa applicants remain left behind, and the US is unsure of how many exactly. On February 16, 2022, the New York Times reported that those who had missed the earlier evacuation flights, and who had been counting on the Humanitarian Parole program, remain in Afghanistan. Of an estimated 43,000 applications to the program received since July 2021, not even 2,000 have been processed. As of early February 2022, fewer than 200 have received approval. Many of those waiting are in hiding in Afghanistan, Pakistan, or neighboring countries.
An unfulfilled promise
President Joe Biden made a promise to these translators and aides that they would find a safe home in the US. And the government has scrambled to put a workable plan in place, begging other countries to temporarily house the Afghans until they could be processed into the US. Meanwhile, it costs these Afghan refugees $575 just to file their applications, and the US collects millions of dollars as they wait.