This Should be Written By Someone Else

1/18/22 Asylum

My name should not be on this blog post. It should be my client’s, but, due to the danger that his family already face trapped in Afghanistan under Taliban rule, he cannot share his identity for fear of putting them at further risk.  

My client—let’s call him Abdul—served bravely with the U.S. military as a combat interpreter and came to the U.S. in 2014 through the Special Immigrant Visa program. Now a U.S. citizen, he filed emergency petitions for his family soon after the Taliban takeover in August. But, due to mismanagement, delays, and an apparent recent change in the application of legal standards, his family languish in Afghanistan, and he loses sleep as he wonders if he will ever see them again. 

At 18, Abdul followed in his older brother’s footsteps and signed up to serve as a combat interpreter with the U.S. military in Afghanistan. As a result, several top Taliban officials now recognize Abdul’s face and name from his time working with the Americans. It became unsafe for Abdul to remain in Afghanistan after he stopped working as an interpreter, and so he applied and came to the U.S., after intensive vetting, through the special immigrant visa program. In 2020, he became a citizen, and in the summer of 2021, he returned to Afghanistan to visit his family and celebrate his wedding. He planned to file a visa petition for his wife to join him in the U.S. after he returned in September. But, the swift Taliban takeover of Afghanistan meant Abdul found himself flying out of Afghanistan weeks earlier than anticipated. While Abdul has been trying to resume his life and engineering studies in the U.S., he is wracked with guilt at leaving his new wife, mother, and younger brothers in danger in Afghanistan.  

 The Taliban are going door to door in the region where his family lives, seeking out those who worked with the Americans and their family members—male relatives in particular. After we had filed emergency humanitarian parole applications for Abdul’s family members, received by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services at the end of August, he called me in a state of panic. His friend, Bibi, who had served in the same unit as a combat interpreter told him the Taliban had come to Bibi’s family home, in the very same region as Abdul’s, and abducted Bibi’s younger brother. The brother’s body was found days later.   

 Abdul waits, barely sleeping. His applications, like all others received since the end of August, go nowhere. Like Afghan Americans and immigration attorneys across the country, we filed expedite requests with USCIS. We asked Congressional offices to assist. And while the U.S. government is now saying that they are prioritizing processing of humanitarian parole applications for those Afghans who have made it out of Afghanistan, nothing has happened.  

Indeed, my Clinic at the University of the District of Columbia’s Law School, is working on a humanitarian parole for an Afghan journalist who is part of a group flown to Albania for temporary safety. Even for those who do make it to a third country, the U.S. government cannot guarantee any kind of expedited processing of their humanitarian parole or other immigration applications. Recent indications are that USCIS plans to deny the vast majority of these applications for emergency relief. The latest numbers released by USCIS revealed that while USCIS received 37,000 applications between July and December 2021, they have only adjudicated around 600 of these applications, granting only 138.  

What would happen if Abdul’s family made it to the U.S.? They would land at an airport with something called “humanitarian parole” – a temporary status allowing an individual to enter the U.S. for up to two years. That is not, however, permanent status. Abdul’s family members could pursue family-based immigration petitions as the immediate family members of a U.S. citizen. For others, though, the path is not so clear. 

 For example, my Clinic represents a prominent Afghan women’s rights activist. She was evacuated after a harrowing journey from country to country before her final flight bound for Washington DC. She landed at Dulles, exhausted with her two children. Now she has to figure out how to obtain permanent status in the U.S. While she has filed a special immigrant visa application as someone who contracted with a U.S. government agency, these are wildly delayed, and it can be very difficult to obtain the requisite “chief of mission” approval—the first step to an SIV application. Meanwhile, she is pursuing asylum protection. This forces her to re-live the very worst days of her life, including extreme domestic violence at the hands of her former spouse and death threats from the Taliban because of her work on gender sensitization. As an experienced asylum attorney, to meet the exacting standards for asylum, I spend around 50-100 hours on each case. The client will endure hours of interviewing to craft a detailed declaration and to gather evidence to support her claim. The asylum process is re-traumatizing and challenging throughout. Indeed, at the client’s asylum interview in December 2021, she faced more than 7 hours of detailed questioning on her claim. While the U.S. government has promised to adjudicate Afghan asylum applications within 150 days of receipt, requiring Afghan evacuees to go through the asylum process will also only exacerbate the affirmative asylum backlog. Currently asylum applicants wait around 3-5 years, or even more, for an interview.  

A much better solution would be for Congress to pass an Afghan Adjustment Act – a clear path to immigration status for Afghan evacuees following on from historical examples, the most recent of which is the Liberian Refugee and Immigration Fairness Act of 2019. Because Abdul cannot raise his own voice for fear of Taliban retribution directed at his family members still trapped in Afghanistan, he asked me to convey this message for him with two clear points. One, USCIS needs to prioritize resources to adjudicate the estimated 37,000 other petitions filed by Afghans at risk in order to ensure families like Abdul’s are reunited safely. And, two, Congress needs to act, to make good on our promises to protect our allies and pass the Afghan Adjustment Act.  

 Today, I speak for my client, but he and I both wait for the day when he can share his story safely, with his family beside him. 

by Lindsay Harris