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“We Were Robbed”: Advocates React to Afghan Humanitarian Parole FOIA Findings

The chaotic and rushed U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan left hundreds of thousands of Afghans at risk from the new Taliban government, including U.S. allies, ethnic and religious minorities, women and girls, and LGBTQ+ Afghans, among others. With so many at-risk Afghans left behind by the U.S.-led evacuation, tens of thousands of them filed humanitarian parole (HP) applications to try and get to safety before it was too late. 

Yet, records confirm what many Afghans and advocates have long observed–that more than a year and a half since the withdrawal, humanitarian parole turned out to be yet another unfulfilled promise to Afghans by the U.S. government. The results of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) and American Immigration Council (AIC) show that the United States effectively abandoned Afghan HP applicants, even while it profited from their application fees. 

To better understand the significance of these findings, IRAP spoke to Afghan humanitarian parole applicants and advocates about their reactions. For a full timeline and analysis of the findings, click here.

“I applied for humanitarian parole along with my wife and children more than a year ago. The U.S. government told us that parole was an option for the most vulnerable Afghans to get to safety, but instead we have received silence. I worked for the United States in Afghanistan and am also an SIV applicant, but I am still waiting for my interview. My family and I even tried to escape during the evacuation and we were at the Kabul airport the day of the bombing. There has been no relief for us since the U.S. withdrawal began,” said an Afghan client represented by IRAP and Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP. “Everything I do is for my family, and I hope my kids will be able to go to America to experience a good life where we will all be safe. Until then, our lives continue to be at risk every day we are kept waiting.”

Abandonment of Humanitarian Parole Applicants

“Project ANAR started in August 2021 to help Afghans file humanitarian parole applications with the support of attorneys. Afghans pursued this pathway because the U.S. refugee system had been decimated and there weren’t other options available to them,” said Laila Ayub, immigration attorney and the co-founder of Project ANAR. 

The U.S. government did too little too late to respond to the massive influx of humanitarian parole applications from Afghans hoping to escape the Taliban takeover. FOIA records show that on August 13, 2021, USCIS officials ordered expedited processing of Afghan HP applications, only to reverse course hours later. After the U.S. withdrawal ended on August 31, USCIS actually put a temporary hold on adjudicating Afghan humanitarian parole applications. At the height of fear and uncertainty for many Afghans targeted by the Taliban, the U.S. government simply stopped processing applications.

“These documents confirm the government’s complete lack of strategic preparedness to confront the crisis. It is shocking to see the level of administrative dysfunction, the way they changed decisions so many times in the middle of a crisis,” said Mustafa Babak, Executive Director of the Afghan-American Foundation.

Mass Denials

Between January 1, 2020 and April 6, 2022, USCIS received 44,785 applications from Afghan citizens seeking safe passage to the United States. As of April 6, 2022, only 114 – far less than one percent – had been conditionally approved, and 94% remained unadjudicated. 

“Most denials don’t include an explanation of why and people are frustrated. Nearly two years later the government has barely supplied any information about this process to those who need it most,” said Ayub. “There are so many barriers for Afghans seeking safety and access to information is one of them. We need this information in order to seek accountability for how our community has been treated.”

In September 2021, USCIS went so far as to consider creating a template denial notice for Afghans, indicating an intention to deny applications en masse. Instead, the majority of applications have simply gone unadjudicated, leaving at-risk Afghans in limbo even as conditions in Afghanistan continue to deteriorate. 

$19 Million Dollars Taken From Afghans 

Between March 2021 and 2022, USCIS collected an astonishing $19 million in fees for Afghan humanitarian parole applications it seemingly has no intention of adjudicating. The agency rejected 44% of fee waiver applications associated with Afghan humanitarian parole applications, despite the clear burden the $575 per person fee placed on most Afghans, especially large families. Friends, family members, advocates, and veterans raised thousands of dollars to file applications to help people get out  of danger in Afghanistan, only to see no movement in their cases.

“Afghans feel as though we were robbed. You must remember, these applications were filed by people struggling against the sudden takeover of their country by the barbaric Taliban regime. While dealing with collapse of a country, economy, separation from family, Afghans found the financial means to ensure they or their family could find a path to safety. And the fact that they still were not given the right to due process is extremely unethical,” said Babak.

DHS even considered and rejected a proposal to waive fees for Afghan humanitarian parole application. The following spring, the United States government waived all fee requirements of Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion of their country through the Uniting for Ukraine program. As of February 2023, more than 117,000 Ukrainians have arrived in the United States through the Uniting for Ukraine program, and the U.S. collected no fees.

“Afghans Should Not Be Excluded From Meaningful Solutions”

Advocates agree that while the FOIA findings are a reminder that the U.S. continues to let down at-risk Afghans, the U.S. obligation to get them to safety endures. 

“The government claimed the number of Afghan humanitarian parole applications was unexpected and they were overwhelmed. Yet we see that they were able to make significant innovations for the Uniting For Ukraine parole program, removing some of the biggest hurdles keeping Afghans from accessing this pathway,” said Ayub. “Unfortunately, those innovations have not been applied to Afghans themselves, and there has been very little effort to make humanitarian parole more accessible for Afghans. We have heard a lot of excuses from the government over the last few years and we know they are not reflective of what is possible. They actually can do more and are choosing not to.”

“While the dollar numbers are shocking, the real betrayal is that the U.S. government promised to give Afghans an opportunity to get evacuated, only to close it again due to the government’s own lack of preparedness and decision making. There has been a complete lack of due process and there needs to be more done,” said Babak. “The U.S. needs to do right by the wrongs it has done, and these Afghans should not be excluded from meaningful solutions.”