One recent afternoon, I sat in on a conference call with nearly 100 fellow immigration attorneys across the country sharing bits and pieces of information about efforts to evacuate Afghans trying desperately to escape their country, and the U.S. government's response to these efforts. We also talked about our role as immigration attorneys. As chair of the Minnesota-Dakotas chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), my goal was to better understand the current state of affairs and to determine what, if anything, our chapter could do to facilitate a coordinated resettlement response.
What I learned was both shocking and disappointing.
First, a review of the background. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, our country invaded Afghanistan, ousting the Taliban militant group that had been running the country since the late 1990s. U.S. forces would remain for the next 20 years, backing the Afghan government until a few months ago, when the Taliban once again seized power over the entire country in a matter of days with little to no resistance.
U.S. forces immediately evacuated the country sooner than planned in a botched withdrawal that endangered the lives of American citizens and our Afghan allies (i.e., those who risked their lives for the U.S. government).
Since then, Taliban gunmen have been going door-to-door searching for anyone who had supported the government or the American effort.
Many immigration lawyers across the U.S. began to assist family members and friends of Afghan allies in filing applications for various forms of relief. The vast majority of us are assisting clients in applying for humanitarian parole which, according to the Immigration Service's website, "is used to bring someone who is otherwise inadmissible to the United States for a temporary period of time due to an emergency."
Applications began to pour into the offices of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in late August and continue to do so to this day.
The focus of the recent conference call was to share our collective experiences with the Immigration Service's adjudication of those applications. Here is what we learned:
- Within the past two months there have been over 17,000 applications for humanitarian parole filed with the USCIS.
- Each application includes a filing fee of $575; in the past two months the USCIS has received an estimated $9.8 million in fees.
- While there is an option to request a fee waiver, almost all applications filed with a fee waiver have been rejected by the USCIS.
- For the pending 17,000 applications there are a total of six USCIS adjudicators.
- Since Sept. 1, USCIS has not processed any applications for individuals still in Afghanistan.
- Since that same date, USCIS has processed "a handful of applications" for Afghan nationals displaced in a third country.
- USCIS is expected to soon announce its plans to adjudicate those applications that remain pending, with priority given to individuals who are not physically in Afghanistan. The rationale for this decision is that third-country nationals would be able to obtain the required travel permission in the form of a visa at a U.S. consular post in the third country, while visa services have been suspended within Afghanistan.
- It is unclear if visas will be issued to displaced Afghan nationals who are not in possession of a valid passport.
To recap: 17,000 applications, $9.8 million in fees, six adjudicators, nearly zero applications processed.
In the meantime, people are dying.
I couldn't help but notice the irony in it all. How could this even remotely be considered humanitarian? How could such an inhumane situation exist with a benefit that, by its very name, is supposed to prevent it?
But most importantly, I found myself asking, "If this were another administration, wouldn't there be more public outcry?"
Halfway through the call we spoke of the legal ethics in advising clients to file an application that may never get processed, wasting exorbitant fees and raising false hopes. And we ended with an understanding of where we go from here.
From here we demand action. From here we call on Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to immediately allocate sufficient resources to the USCIS for the swift adjudication of the pending 17,000 applications for humanitarian parole and to approve applications for fee waivers for applicants who meet the eligibility criteria.
After these applications have been approved, we call on Secretary of State Antony Blinken to expedite the vetting process and the issuance of visas to displaced Afghan nationals, including those who are not in possession of a valid passport.
And from here we call on the office of the White House to authorize the U.S. Department of Defense to send military flights to countries with concentrations of displaced Afghan nationals, and evacuate those with valid claims to asylum, Special Immigrant Visas or any other immigration benefit.
Finally, we call on Congress to swiftly pass the Afghan Adjustment Act, which would provide a path to permanent residence for those Afghan evacuees who have risked their lives in support of U.S. military efforts. It is the least we can do to honor the sacrifices our Afghan allies have made for the benefit of American democracy.
That would be the humanitarian thing to do.
John T. Medeiros is chair, Minnesota/Dakotas Chapter, American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA).