As the Taliban prepared to take control of the Afghan capital, Los Angeles lawyer Wogai Mohmand watched in horror and racking his mind on how to help his family and others escape.
He wrote a document outlining possible immigration routes for Afghans seeking to come to the United States and posted it on social media. Hundreds of strangers responded, begging him for legal help.
Now Mohmand is leading an effort to convince the US government to expand a fast track to legal entry into the United States known as humanitarian parole for thousands of Afghans, even as US Citizenship and Immigration Services They are struggling to process the applications they have already received. .
ANAR project – Afghan Advocacy and Resources Network: Co-led by Mohmand and two other Afghan American women, it builds on earlier models of US aid similar to groups in Latin America and South Asia. So far, the group has helped about 9,000 Afghans apply for parole to enter the United States.
Under humanitarian parole, which is not a path to citizenship, the federal government can remove the bureaucracy from the typical visa process to temporarily allow people to enter the US for emergency or public interest reasons. Parole is issued on a case-by-case basis and is generally reserved for extreme circumstances, such as giving someone a few days to visiting a dying loved one.
It has also been used repeatedly over the past 70 years to quickly attract groups of countries in which the United States has been involved, including people fleeing the Cuban revolution, as well as Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotians following the end of the Vietnam War. . Once here, those people can apply for work permits and medical and cash assistance for temporary refugees.
Unlike in the past, when the US government launched broader efforts, this time advocates are not waiting for an official program. They hope the large number of requests will persuade the Biden administration to establish a formal program to quickly evacuate Afghans who have not been able to leave the country through the US-led government. Operation Allies Welcome, which provides a fast track primarily for Afghans who were affiliated with the US.
But the group has hit a wall. Since US troops withdrew from Afghanistan on Aug. 30, advocates say, none of the submitted requests have been processed. Meanwhile, an overwhelmed USCIS issued an agency-wide request for volunteers to process Afghanistan applications and has begun training additional staff to help with the surge in applications.
“USCIS is actively allocating additional staff resources to assist with the current workload of the parole application,” said spokeswoman Victoria Palmer. “The agency will have significantly more staff assigned to this workload in the coming weeks.”
Almost 70,000 Afghans have been paroled into the United States as part of Operation Allies Welcome. Another 20,000 Afghans have applied separately for parole since August, Palmer said. The agency typically receives fewer than 2,000 applications per year for people of all nationalities.
As of July 1, USCIS has approved only 93 parole applications for Afghans. Some are still in their home country, while others have reached third countries and are awaiting further processing, Palmer said.
Applicants must complete biometric and research examinations in person before they can be approved for humanitarian parole. Because the embassy in Kabul is closed, applicants must travel to a third country to do so, Palmer said. That is assuming the Taliban allow them to leave.
The agency issues eligible applicants a notice advising them of the travel requirement and, if approved, the Department of State gives the applicant a bill of lading stating that they have permission to enter the U.S. They can then take a commercial flight, at your expense.
Congress created humanitarian parole under the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952. It was first used in 1956 to allow more than 20,000 Hungarians to enter after the country’s failed revolution. Recently, its use has fallen in individual cases and it has established programs such as the Central American Minors program, which began in 2014.
The founders of the ANAR project see it as the only immediate option for many who remain in danger under the Taliban regime.
Many of the ANAR Project applicants do not qualify for Special immigrant visas for Afghans or priority designation under the Refugee admission program because they did not work for the United States. Instead, they are Afghan government workers, teachers, journalists, widows, and other women and girls. Some have US citizen relatives who could sponsor them for permanent residence. Many could qualify for asylum.
“We are at a different time right now,” Mohmand said. “We just don’t have years to spare. The goal really is for people to be safe here. ”
Group support It made it through September, and now they have raised over $ 350,000 to pay the USCIS filing fee of $ 575 for each application. The funds are channeled through Pangea Legal Services, a San Francisco non-profit organization.
Mohmand believes the United States owes all Afghans, not just those who worked directly with the federal government, a way out.
“The actions of the US government and military created this problem. The United States legitimized the Taliban with Doha peace agreement and then literally handed the government over to them, ”he said, referring to an agreement signed by the Trump administration and the Taliban last year. “The United States has meddled everywhere, but I think there is a specific duty owed to the people of Afghanistan because of decades of occupation.”
The group’s approach is risky. USCIS could keep the money and decide to deny the applications. But Mohmand hopes the strategy – and the payments – will pressure the federal government to act.
The ANAR Project is not the only organization promoting humanitarian parole for Afghans. In a letter The group sent President Biden last month, signed by other nonprofits and individual law firms, advocates said they expect a total of at least 30,000 applications to be submitted to USCIS, which will report more to the agency. of $ 17 million in fees.
Theresa Cardinal Brown, who oversees immigration policy at the Center for Bipartisan Policy and who worked at the Department of Homeland Security under the Obama administration, said the Biden administration was reeling from one crisis to another on immigration, some of which were brewing for a long time, even before Afghanistan. extract.
Processing times at USCIS are several months, even for basic applications like a green card replacement. In recent years, the agency twice tried to raise rates, but was stopped by lawsuits.
Brown said he understands the urgency behind humanitarian parole requests, but the agency needs time and resources to build capacity.
“Right now everything is urgent. Do you prioritize people who are in Afghanistan, people who are here on military bases, or people who are on bases abroad? “She said.” Every time we have an extraordinary migration event – Cubans and Haitians, unaccompanied Central American minors, Afghans – we suddenly have to draw resources from elsewhere and act like we’ve never experienced this before. Why don’t we prepare for migratory emergencies as we do with natural disasters? ”
Mohmand worked with another fellow Afghan-American lawyer, Virginia-based Laila Ayub, to develop the initial immigration resource document. Later, a former UC Berkeley colleague, Saamia Haqiq, volunteered her time. Haqiq had experience working for immigration and resettlement organizations and had just quit her job.
“It all happened very fast,” Mohmand said. “And now it’s literally Saamia and Laila’s full-time job, and I work this part-time through my job. It has changed our lives. “
Since then, Haqiq has submitted more than 20 applications on behalf of family members, including a 25-year-old cousin who was a television reporter for TOLO News, one of the country’s largest media outlets, and an activist promoting the women’s education.
“The work he did, of which he was so proud, now he regrets for the risk it poses to his family,” he said. “The Taliban do not focus on a single individual, they usually target an entire family.”
Nadia D., 49, of Fairfax, Virginia, helped 96 extended relatives in Afghanistan apply for humanitarian parole through Project ANAR. He asked The Times not to publish his last name for fear of retaliation for members of his family.
His family includes former Afghan government workers, teachers, engineers, non-profit workers, and journalists. No one can work, he said, and the children are no longer in school. Taliban fighters knock on his nephew’s door every night asking where he is, he added.
Nadia said she is happy that thousands of Afghans working for the United States have been evacuated. But he hopes the federal government will do more.
“Everyone has the right to happiness and the right to live a safe life,” Nadia said in dari through an interpreter. “I will pray that my family can have that too.”