More than a year since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, the U.S. government has approved less than 2% of Afghan applications it processed for a humanitarian parole program.
Since July 2021, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has collected nearly $20 million from 66,000 applications filed through something called a Form I-131 and approved just 123 of the less than 8,000 applications processed.
When the government of Afghanistan suddenly collapsed a year ago, the United States led a frenzied effort to evacuate more than 122,000 people – many of them Afghans who had worked with the U.S. and its allies or otherwise feared life under Taliban rule. However, once the U.S. left the country, the need for threatened Afghans to evacuate didn’t.
U.S. lawmakers and legal advocates encouraged them to apply for humanitarian parole. It’s a program that allows people temporary entry into the United States – but does not on its own provide a pathway to citizenship or any sort of permanent status – and was considered the next best hope to escape to safety.
Last August, USCIS set up a dedicated webpage with instructions for Afghan applicants, including a directive to mark envelopes with “Afghanistan Humanitarian Parole” and to write “EXPEDITE” at the top of the application if they wanted it to be processed more quickly.
“When we all reached out to our members of Congress and other, other officials that we knew in various stages of government to say, ‘My family’s in danger, how do I get them out?’ – this was the solution that was offered,” said Shala Gafary of Human Rights First, an organization that provides pro bono legal services to asylum seekers, referring to humanitarian parole. “It really feels like a bait and switch here.”
Movement on those applications was slow, prompting outcry from U.S. senators and legal advocates, including a lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Massachusetts. Earlier this year, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting filed a Freedom of Information Act request with USCIS for records to understand how those applications have been handled.
The records Reveal got back offer the most detailed and up-to-date breakdown of the government’s processing of humanitarian parole applications from Afghanistan. While USCIS has previously released figures about the number of applications it had received and approved, the agency had not said how much money it had collected in application fees, nor how much time was spent processing applications. Nearly 40,000 applications are still pending, the records show.
“The sheer magnitude of some of the failures, such as (nearly) $20 million in fees collected only to approve 123 applications, paints a more dire picture than perhaps we even realized,” Sunil Varghese, policy director at the International Refugee Assistance Project, said in an email. “The U.S. military and diplomatic presence in Afghanistan may have ended last August, but the U.S. government’s obligations to at-risk Afghans did not. These shockingly low processing numbers should serve as a reminder that the U.S. can and should do more.”
Eight months after Kabul fell, the Biden administration launched a new humanitarian program for Ukrainians trying to leave their country after Russia invaded. “This program will be fast. It’ll be streamlined,” President Joe Biden said about the initiative called Uniting for Ukraine.
As of Aug. 4, USCIS had approved more than 68,000 applications since launching the program in April, out of more than 97,000 applications received. While Afghans were asked to pay $575 per person, USCIS did not request an application fee for the Uniting for Ukraine program.
The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees USCIS, did not respond to specific questions about humanitarian parole. Instead, a department spokesperson pointed to the large numbers of Afghans who have been admitted to the U.S. since last August. About 76,000 Afghans out of the 122,000 people evacuated from Kabul made it into the U.S., the majority of whom were paroled into the country, according to a department report published in December.
“The United States swiftly welcomed more than 80,000 Afghans through Operation Allies Welcome,” the spokesperson said in an email, referring to the Biden administration’s effort to provide services for Afghans resettling in the U.S. The spokesperson added, “We are prepared to welcome additional Afghans over the coming weeks and months.”
However, those figures are for those who were evacuated. They don’t account for Afghans who applied for humanitarian parole.
The effort led by the Department of Homeland Security “doesn’t help any of the Afghans that filed for parole or that remain in Afghanistan,” said Wogai Mohmand, co-founder of Project ANAR, a legal advocacy group that has helped thousands of Afghans apply for humanitarian parole. She added that people who were allowed into the U.S. in the wake of the evacuation are “a completely different group of people from those who applied for humanitarian parole from outside of the United States.”
Project ANAR was founded last year in the wake of the fall of Kabul. Volunteers helped Afghans apply for humanitarian parole, encouraged by congressional offices pointing them to that option and by the USCIS website, which the agency continued to update into the fall. “Legal advocates saw that as an indication of like, yeah, this is a viable pathway,” Mohmand said. “They’re putting out more guidance for us to follow. We’ll go through that. We’ll do the things that they tell us to do and will get approved.”
But not long after, USCIS introduced new evidentiary requirements for Afghan applicants, such as strong connections to the U.S. and evidence of threats they face in Afghanistan.
“We were suddenly being told that Afghans had to meet a higher standard in their applications,” Mohmand said. “The new standards didn’t account for the realities of life in Afghanistan at all and, to us, were a mechanism to keep Afghans out of the U.S.”
The data shows that Afghans seeking humanitarian parole had the best chance of success if a government agency, like the State Department, filed a request on their behalf. That sort of government request is separate from the I-131 application process. According to the records, USCIS approved 199 out of 270 government requests. (In June, USCIS shared numbers with CBS News showing that 297 requests for parole had been approved, without distinguishing between I-131 applications and government requests.)
USCIS typically receives fewer than 2,000 applications a year, and on average, they take 90 days to process. The data provided by the government shows an average processing time of more than 180 days for Afghan I-131 applications. The agency has since increased its staff to handle the uptick in applications, but tens of thousands of Afghans are still waiting.
Among them is Nilofar, a former teacher who is still living in Afghanistan. (Reveal is not publishing her last name to protect her safety.) Her father-in-law worked for the previous government, and she and her family live in fear of retaliation by the Taliban.
“Our only hope was getting approved in humanitarian parole,” Nilofar said. “We are in our homes. We don’t go out. We don’t go shopping. We don’t go to the park. We don’t go anywhere. We just stay at home; we’re in a very bad situation, economic and mental situation. And we do not know how long we can continue to stay safe.”
It has been almost one year since she and her family applied for humanitarian parole, and they have not yet gotten an answer.
This story was edited by Maryam Saleh, Soo Oh and Andrew Donohue and copy edited by Nikki Frick.