The Kabul noncombatant evacuation operation (NEO) came to an end when the last U.S. military cargo transport lifted off from Kabul airport in the early morning hours of August 31, 2021. Left behind were thousands of Afghans who supported the U.S. military and other government organizations over a twenty year period. These included interpreters, contractors, drivers, office staff, and others who helped the U.S. war machine function in Afghanistan.
Pending SIVs – Long Approval Process. Many of these abandoned Afghans have fully approved or pending Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) that would allow them entry into the United States. Historically the processing time for SIVs has been numbered in the years and the SIV program has been plagued with delays, bureaucratic missteps, and outright neglect on the part of the Department of State (DoS). After August 31st the State Department said that it would continue to process SIV applications but it would take many months if not longer; however, the prospect of being hunted down by the Taliban and jailed, tortured, or killed can be measured in days.
Announcement of HP as Avenue for Escape. The U.S. government scrambled to recover from the devastating press coverage of the U.S. military withdrawal that hastened the collapse of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF), the fall of the Afghan government, and the chaotic non-combatant evacuation operation conducted at the Kabul airport. Department of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas issued a memo on August 23rd that instructed officials to use an existing program, Humanitarian Parole, as a method for at-risk Afghans to make their way to the United States and as a legal means for the thousands of Afghans who managed to get on military evacuation flights to U.S. bases in the Middle East during the August airlift.
Rarely Used Program. Humanitarian Parole (HP) allows people outside the United States to enter America and remain temporarily for humanitarian reasons for one to two years. The HP program would allow SIV applicants and others to finish the SIV process, apply for asylum, or seek another path to immigration. Humanitarian Parole is a rarely used discretionary authority that gives people in urgent situations a year or two to complete their immigration process. The Humanitarian Parole is not a visa.
A Perceived Safety Valve. This announcement appeared to diminish the mounting criticism on State for its failure to properly administer the decades-old SIV program and to address the many SIV applications that were in the long process of review and approval. Humanitarian Parole was initially viewed as a method for an Afghan to leave Afghanistan for a third country or the United States until the Special Immigrant Visa was fully processed. The State Department received some glowing comments from the press on its efforts to assist the abandoned at-risk Afghans. The blanket application in August of the Humanitarian Parole process to the many Afghans on the ‘lily pads’ in the Middle East and on military bases in the United States who had no legal status and had no connection to the U.S. military in Afghanistan provide hope for many abandoned Afghans. This ‘new’ program’ seemed to set the stage for the thousands of Afghans with a pending SIV application to use Humanitarian Parole as a method out of Afghanistan.
Afghan Evac Groups Push HP. Volunteers working with the many private Afghan evac groups naturally saw Humanitarian Parole as a way to evacuate at-risk Afghans while their SIV applications were processed. The hope of the volunteers was that Afghans with a pending SIV could make their way to either a third country or be evacuated to one of the ‘lily pads’ maintained by the U.S. military in the Middle East or Europe, and then ultimately find their way to America under the provisions of the Humanitarian Parole program. This new development was viewed by many as a ‘game changer’ for those trapped in the special visa program’s massive backlog of applications. Once out of Afghanistan, and possibly in the United States, the Afghan could wait out the long SIV approval process, receive approved SIV status, apply for lawful permanent residence (green card), and eventually become a United States citizen. Thousands of Humanitarian Parole applications were submitted by Afghan evac volunteers, immigration lawyers, or Afghans living in America trying to assist Afghans in Afghanistan. Members of Congress also saw Humanitarian Parole as a means of assisting Afghans who are in danger because of their work for the United States.
DoS and DHS – Little Communication and Very Little Action. The Department of State and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been very quiet on the topic of Humanitarian Parole. The U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) is part of the Department of Homeland Security and is responsible for the processing of Humanitarian Parole applications. There has been a lack of clarity on eligibility for humanitarian parole, a sense that there is changing criteria, and general consensus that U.S. government is delaying the use of Humanitarian Parole. Some news reports indicate that Humanitarian Parole applications are not even being looked at as the U.S. government is prioritizing American citizens, LPRs with green cards, and Afghans with a current passport and either a ‘soil’ SIV or ‘issued’ SIV. It could be a year or more before some HP applications are looked over by government officials. Some news reports said that there were only six officers available to process the thousands of humanitarian requests by mid-October.
Fee Collection and Waiver. To apply for HP status one must pay the $575 fee. Each individual in a family is assessed this fee. An Afghan family of four would have to pay $2,300 in processing fees. An Afghan family of eight would have to pay $4,600 in processing fees. At this point in time many families that have pending SIV applications have lost their jobs, have left their homes for safer locations, are in hiding from the Taliban, and have sold their possessions for food and shelter. There have been calls for the USCIS to waive the fee for Afghans for humanitarian parole. The USCIS argues that the blanket waiver is not needed because the Afghans can apply for a fee waiver (I-912 form). USCIS acknowledges that the fee waiver can slow the approval process down or result in disapproval. Many immigration lawyers advise against using the fee waiver.
Stolen Money? It is estimated that in the past several months over 30,000 HP applications have been submitted. At $575 each the amount that the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services USCIS has received is around $17 million. Very little processing of HP applications has been done by the USCIS. One wonders why USCIS continues to accept money for services that they will likely never conduct. If USCIS does process an HP application, the end result is more often a disapproval – yet USCIS will keep the money.
HP Not a Priority. Apparently, based on the lack of HP applications processed, the HP applications submitted by thousands of Afghans have been given a low priority by the USCIS. The agency is concentrating on the green card holders and COM-approved SIV applicants, and the thousands of SIV applicants that have flooded in over the past several months. As of mid-November 2021 only 100 Humanitarian Parole cases had received approval over a period of a couple of months. (Editor’s note: As of August 2022 only 123 Afghan Humanitarian Parole applications were approved in the past year.)
Denial of HP Applications. In the late stages of November it became apparent that USCIS was beginning to process humanitarian parole applications – but the bulk of these were denials. Some advocacy groups believe the denials were in accordance with a new set of stringent criteria that will exclude the vast majority of Afghan humanitarian parole applicants from eligibility. This new criteria includes the provision of insurmountable evidentiary requirements that are unnecessarily burdensome that go far beyond the requirements of asylum and refugee law. The degree to which an Afghan has to prove he or she is under threat is too high a standard.
False Hope. Over the past few months the realization of HP as an almost worthless approach for the abandoned Afghans who supported the U.S in Afghanistan has set in. The word being spread among immigration lawyers that work Afghan evac cases is that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is now expected to deny most Afghan humanitarian parole cases. USCIS is applying standards that the vast majority of applicants can’t meet. If the applicant doesn’t have hard evidence that specifically names the individual (newspaper reports, court documents, high public profile, etc.) as being threatened by the Taliban then he or she won’t get approved. Those HP applicants outside of Afghanistan are unlikely to be approved because they are not considered to be in imminent danger . . . and they should pursue the refugee path. Those in Afghanistan will most likely be denied because there is no consular post in Afghanistan to action the case. Even if they travel to a third country there is no guarantee that the U.S. embassy in that country will action the case.
The Way Forward? Some Recommendations
Provide Clear Guidance. The various government websites that provide information for processing Humanitarian Parole applications need to be updated with clear instructions. These should be in English as well as in the languages used by Afghans. A handbook should be published and posted online on how to apply for Humanitarian Parole for use by immigration lawyers, volunteer Afghan evac organizations, immigration advocacy groups, and Afghans.
Communicate. Government spokespersons should provide clear and concise information during their press briefings to reporters and others on where priorities are and how much support Department of State and Department of Homeland Security is actually providing to those Afghans at-risk in Afghanistan. It would be helpful if the USCIS could include regular updates to its website to assist immigrant advocates, Afghan Evac organizations, and others in utilizing the Humanitarian Parole program for Afghans who are at-risk.
Waive the Fee. The $575 fee should be waived for all Afghans. DHS Secretary Mayorkas has the ability to waive the HP application fees. The DHS should recognize that Afghans who have lost their jobs, moved out of their homes and in hiding, and who are living in the midst of an economic meltdown and humanitarian crisis cannot afford the $575 processing fee per individual.
Other Recommendations. There are many other recommendations that would improve the Humanitarian Parole program applied to at-risk Afghans. These include reducing the evidentiary and threat standards, establishing a process for consular processing, implementing a Special Afghan Parole Program, and using the use of discretion broadly,
Conclusion. The bottom line is that the Department of State and Department of Homeland Security should be doing a much better job in evacuating Afghans at-risk. The horrible implementation of the Humanitarian Parole program for the Afghans left behind is one of many examples of the poor performance of these organizations in the conduct of the evacuation of at-risk Afghans.
News Articles about Humanitarian Parole:
December 17, 2021. “Backlog, confusion await Afghans seeking humanitarian relief”, by Caroline Simon, Roll Call. Once parole applicants have fled the country, they may have a harder time proving they’re endangered.
December 14, 2021. “Joint Letter to Biden Administration Expressing Concern Regarding Humanitarian Parole Denials for Afghans”, Human Rights Watch.
December 9, 2021. “Scoop: U.S. begins denying Afghan immigrants”, Azios. Humanitarian parole has already been used for tens of thousands of Afghans who were evacuated during the NEO of August 2021 in Kabul. But now the USCIS has tightened up the HP program and begun issuing hundreds of denials.
November 19, 2021. “Thousands of Afghans Seek Temporary US Entry, Few Approved”, Voice of America.
October 23, 2021. “US Immigration Agency Overwhelmed by 20,000 Afghan Humanitarian Requests”, Voice of America.
October 8, 2021, “Department of Homeland Security Owes Afghan Allies More Than Poor Excuses”, by Jill Goldenziel, Forbes.com. In this early October article Jill Goldenziel states that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has stopped processing humanitarian parole applications from Afghans in Afghanistan.
September 1, 2021, “Humanitarian Parole Can Save Afghan Allies. The U.S. Should Let Them Use It”, by Jill Goldenziel, Forbes.com.
August 30, 2021, “Explainer: Humanitarian Parole and the Afghan Evacuation”, National Immigration Forum.
August 24, 2021. “U.S. using humanitarian tool to admit at-risk Afghans who don’t have visas”, CBS News.
August 24, 2021. “U.S. Tells Refugee Aid Groups to Get Ready for 50,000 Afghans”, Bloomberg.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services
Information for Afghan Nationals on Requests to USCIS for Humanitarian Parole
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)
Afghanistan – Humanitarian Parole
Afghan Diaspora for Equality & Progress
Information on Humanitarian Parole
Afg Diaspora Hub
Afghan War News