As the Taliban stood poised to take control of Afghanistan’s capital city, Los Angeles attorney Wogai Mohmand watched, horrified, racking her brain for how to help her family and others escape.
She created a document that outlined possible immigration routes for Afghans who wanted to travel to the United States. She posted it to social media. Many people replied to her, asking for legal assistance.
Now Mohmand leads an effort to convince U.S. officials to extend a fast-track to legal entry to the United States, known as humanitarian parole to thousands. Citizenship and Immigration Services has not been able to process all the applications that it has received.
Project ANAR — Afghan Network for Advocacy and Resources — co-led by Mohmand and two other Afghan American women, draws on past models of similar U.S. aid to groups from Latin America and South Asia. So far, the group has helped some 9,000 Afghans apply for parole to enter the U.S.
Under humanitarian parole, which is not a pathway to citizenship, the federal government can cut through the red tape of the typical visa process to temporarily allow people to enter the U.S. for emergency or public interest reasons. Parole is granted on a case by case basis. It is usually reserved for serious circumstances such as the need to visit a loved one .
It has also been used repeatedly over the last 70 years to quickly bring in groups from countries where the U.S. has been involved, including people fleeing the Cuban revolution, as well as Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians following the end of the Vietnam War. Once here, those individuals can request work permits and temporary refugee cash and medical assistance.
Unlike in the past when such broader efforts were initiated by the U.S. government, advocates aren’t waiting for an official program this time. They hope that the large number of applications will persuade the Biden administration to establish a formal program to quickly evacuate Afghans who have not been able to leave the country through the U.S.-led Operation Allies Welcome, which provides a fast-track primarily for Afghans who were affiliated with the U.S.
But the group has run into a wall. Since U.S. troops pulled out of Afghanistan Aug. 30, advocates say, none of their submitted applications have been processed. The USCIS, overwhelmed by the demand for Afghan applications from Afghanistan, issued an agency-wide call for volunteers and began training additional staff to handle the increased requests.
“USCIS is actively assigning additional staffing resources to assist with the current parole-application workload,” spokeswoman Victoria Palmer said. “The agency will have significantly more staff assigned to this workload in the coming weeks.”
Nearly 70,000 Afghans have been paroled into the U.S. as part of Operation Allies Welcome. An additional 20,000 Afghans have separately applied for parole since August, Palmer said. The agency normally receives fewer than 2,000 requests per year for people from all nationalities.
Since July 1, USCIS has approved just 93 parole applications for Afghans. Palmer stated that some are still in their country while others have reached third countries and are waiting for further processing.
Applicants must complete in-person vetting and biometrics screenings before they can be approved for humanitarian parole. Palmer stated that applicants will need to travel to another country in order to apply for humanitarian parole because the Kabul embassy is closed. This assumes that the Taliban allows them to leave.
The agency sends eligible applicants a notice informing them about the travel requirement. If cleared, the State Department issues the applicant a letter of boarding indicating that they are allowed to enter the U.S.
Congress created humanitarian parole under the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952. It was first used in 1956 to let in more than 20,000 Hungarians after the country’s failed revolution. Recently, its use has fallen into individual cases and established programs such as the Central American Minors program, which started in 2014.
Project ANAR founders see it as the only immediate option for many who remain in danger under Taliban rule.
Many of the Project ANAR applicants don’t qualify for Special Immigrant Visas for Afghans or priority designation under the Refugee Admissions Program because they didn’t work for the U.S. They are instead Afghan government workers, teachers and journalists. Many have American citizens family members that could sponsor them to permanent residency. Many may be eligible for asylum.
“We’re in a distinct moment right now,” Mohmand said. We don’t have the time. The goal truly is to get people safely here.”
Support for the group poured in through September, and they’ve now raised more than $350,000 to pay the $575 USCIS filing fee for each application. The funds are channeled through Pangea Legal Services in San Francisco.
Mohmand believes the U.S. owes all Afghans, not just those who worked directly with the federal government, a path to escape. This issue was created by the U.S. government and military. The U.S. legitimized the Taliban with the Doha peace agreement and then quite literally handed them the government,” she said, referring to a deal signed by the Trump administration and the Taliban last year. “The U.S. has meddled all over, but I believe there is a specific obligation owed to Afghanistan’s people because of decades of occupation.” The group’s approach is risky. The USCIS could decide to keep the money or deny the applications. Mohmand believes that the payments and strategy will make it more difficult for the federal government not to act.
Project ANAR is not the only organization pushing for humanitarian parole for Afghans. In a letter the group sent last month to President Biden, signed by other nonprofits and individual law firms, advocates said they expect a total of at least 30,000 applications to be submitted to the USCIS, garnering the agency more than $17 million in fees.
Theresa Cardinal Brown, who oversees immigration policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center and who worked at the Department of Homeland Security under the Obama administration, said the Biden administration was lurching from crisis to crisis on immigration, some long in the making, even before the Afghanistan pullout.
Processing times at USCIS are several months long, even for basic requests such as replacing a green card. The agency tried twice to increase fees in recent years but was stopped by lawsuits.
Brown stated that she understands the urgency of humanitarian parole requests but that the agency requires time and resources in order to grow its capacity.
“Right now everything is urgent. She asked, “Do you prioritise the Afghans or those who are at military bases or the overseas residents?” “Every time there is an extraordinary migration event, such as the arrival of Cubans or Haitians, Central American unaccompanied children, Afghans, etc., we must immediately pull resources from other locations and behave like we’ve never seen this before. Why don’t we prepare for migration emergencies just like we do natural disasters?”
Mohmand worked with another Afghan American lawyer colleague, Laila Ayub, based in Virginia, to develop the initial immigration resource document. Saamia Haqiq (an ex-UC Berkeley peer) offered her help. Haqiq was an experienced worker for resettlement and immigration organizations, and had just quit her job.
” It all happened so fast,” Mohmand stated. It has changed our lives.” It has changed our lives.”
Haqiq has since filed more than 20 applications on behalf of family members, including a 25-year-old cousin who was a TV reporter at TOLO News, one of the biggest news outlets in the country, and an activist promoting education for women. The work he did, which he was proud of, he now regrets for the danger it poses to his family.” she stated. “The Taliban doesn’t focus on a single individual — usually they target an entire family.”
Nadia D., 49, of Fairfax, Va., helped 96 extended relatives in Afghanistan apply for humanitarian parole through Project ANAR. Out of fear for her family’s retribution, she asked The Times not publish her last name.
Her extended family includes journalists, former teachers, engineers and government workers from Afghanistan. She said that none of them are able work and that the children are not in school anymore. She said that Taliban fighters regularly knock on her nephew’s door, asking him where he is.
Nadia expressed gratitude for the evacuation of thousands of Afghans who had worked for the U.S. She hopes that the federal government will do more.
“Everyone has the right to happiness and the right to live a safe life,” Nadia said in Dari through an interpreter. “I will pray that my family is also able to have that.”