As Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in August 2021, the U.S. undertook a massive effort to evacuate vulnerable Afghans—particularly those who had assisted U.S. troops during America's 20-year war there—to safety. Though tens of thousands of Afghans made it out, many are still stranded in Afghanistan and third countries.
Many people seeking an escape from Afghanistan do not qualify for the pathways available to Afghans who served the U.S. military effort in some capacity. Women and girls, human rights workers, journalists, judges, and others must now look instead to a little-used tool of the U.S. immigration system called "humanitarian parole."
This measure, outlined by the Immigration and Nationality Act, allows certain individuals to enter the U.S. for a temporary period under the discretion of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), on the basis of "urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit." There is no defined set of criteria as to who may qualify for parole, and anyone may apply for it.
Though humanitarian parole allows for faster processing of applicants, it still involves robust vetting. For Afghans, that has meant biometric screenings, cross-checking with intelligence agency watchlists, and other security and identity verification steps. Senior government officials must approve individual applications.
Since July, more than 28,000 Afghans have applied for entry to the U.S. on humanitarian grounds, and the Biden administration reportedly plans to use parole to evacuate up to 50,000 Afghans. But only about 100 applicants have been approved so far.
In large part, this is because this year's application volume dwarfs the 2,000 parole applications USCIS would receive in a typical year. Staffing issues are also a factor. "Victoria Palmer, a USCIS spokeswoman, said the agency has trained 44 additional staff to help address the application surge," reports Al Jazeera. "As of mid-October, the agency had only six staffers detailed to the programme."
"There's a broad staffing shortage at USCIS in general," says Danilo Zak of the National Immigration Forum. "There should be a lot more people in this office adjudicating these claims….Normally, they try to get 90 percent of these humanitarian parole applications adjudicated within 90 days, but to me that's too long in the first place."
For the vulnerable people that humanitarian parole is supposed to serve, 90 days could be a matter of life and death. Since the Taliban retook control of Afghanistan, there have been reports of militants killing a pregnant policewoman, massacring members of an ethnic minority group, and violently assaulting journalists.
Despite the danger to people stuck in Afghanistan, USCIS says it is "prioritizing the parole applications for Afghan nationals outside of Afghanistan." Processing parole applicants in Afghanistan has become effectively impossible since the U.S. Embassy in Kabul suspended operations on August 31 this year. If applicants are deemed eligible for parole, USCIS says that they must arrange their "own travel outside of Afghanistan to a country where there is a U.S. embassy or consulate."
Applying for parole carries a steep $575 filing charge as well—and an application is no guarantee of protection. USCIS has received roughly $11.5 million from Afghans in just the past few months, according to Al Jazeera, but it has approved few applications in that time.
"We need to be creating much more efficient processing systems," says Zak. "These are the people who are in the most imminent danger that we're adjudicating."
There is precedent for using parole this way. "Parole has also been used—repeatedly and to great effect—to facilitate the evacuations of allies and others at risk following the withdrawal of U.S. troops from war-torn regions," writes Zak. It was used in Operation New Life in 1975 to grant entry to 130,000 people following the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. Later, during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 1996, parole helped 6,600 evacuees. Thousands of refugees and allies during those two efforts were brought to Guam and Wake Island to undergo vetting and processing before coming to the mainland U.S.
"There's a couple things I think the administration could have done and could still do to improve this process," says Zak. "The first, of course, is just continuing to surge resources to the humanitarian assistance branch at USCIS, making sure there's enough employees to process these requests efficiently." Second, Zak thinks USCIS should eliminate the burdensome application fee that Afghans must pay "without even a guarantee that they're going to receive protection." Third, USCIS should waive the requirement that applicants identify a financial sponsor in the United States.
"Parole, for many reasons, is not the ideal humanitarian protection pathway," Zak continues. "It doesn't provide the same benefits upon arrival in the U.S. It doesn't provide a pathway to permanent status. It's quite restrictive and discretionary in terms of who is actually eligible."
Still, it's an important tool. It is more inclusive than the other visas available specifically to Afghans, and it's faster than the other options too.
As President Joe Biden marked the end of America's 20-year war in Afghanistan, he said, "We will continue to work to help more people leave the country who are at risk." Until the immigration bureaucracy can quickly and effectively process the vulnerable Afghans stranded in the Taliban-controlled country, that promise will go unfulfilled.