US Left Afghanistan 1 Year Ago, But Has Been Slow to Welcome Afghan Refugees

We look at what’s happened to Afghan refugees who have struggled to flee the country since the last U.S. troops left Afghanistan one year ago today. While the U.S. and allied nations helped evacuate some 122,000 people out of Afghanistan, the U.S. has failed to process requests for “humanitarian parole” — a program granting U.S. entry that costs each Afghan applicant $575 and is what Reveal reporter Najib Aminy says is “one of the last possibilities [for Afghans] to leave the country.” According to documents obtained by Reveal, out of the 66,000 applications filed for humanitarian parole, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has processed less than 8,000 of them and approved just 123. Meanwhile, the agency has already approved more than 68,000 applications from Ukrainians since launching a separate program called Uniting for Ukraine in April after the Russian invasion and has charged these applicants no fee.

TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: One year ago today, the last U.S. troops left Afghanistan. At 11:59 p.m. local time in Kabul, the final U.S. military transport plane took off, ending the longest war in U.S. history. In the preceding weeks, the U.S. and allied nations helped evacuate some 122,000 people — mostly Afghans — who were trying to leave the country as the Taliban regained power.

Today we look at what’s happened to Afghan refugees over the past year. For those Afghans trying to rebuild their lives in the U.S., many have faced significant obstacles. The news organization Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting recently reported the U.S. government has approved less than 2% of Afghan applications it processed for humanitarian parole. According to documents obtained by Reveal, 66,000 applications for the I-131 program have been filed for Afghans seeking humanitarian parole in the U.S. The documents show U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has processed less than 8,000 of the applications; the agency approved just 123.

Meanwhile, the agency has already approved more than 68,000 applications from Ukrainians since launching a separate program called Uniting for Ukraine in April after the Russian invasion. The U.S. has also requested Afghan applicants pay a $575-per-person fee, while applicants for Uniting for Ukraine program face no fee. Reveal reports U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has collected nearly $20 million in fees from Afghan applicants since last July.

In a moment, we’ll be joined by Najib Aminy, a reporter with Reveal, but first I want to turn to an excerpt of an interview he conducted for _Reveal_’s weekly radio show. In the clip, he interviews an Afghan woman named Nulufar. She is a former teacher still living in Afghanistan. Fearing for her safety, she applied for the humanitarian parole program months ago.

NULUFAR: It has been a long time since we applied for HP, but still we do not hear any response from USCIS, even positive or negative. We are still waiting.

NAJIB AMINY: What is that waiting like?

NULUFAR: We are in our homes. We don’t go out. We don’t go shopping. We don’t go park. We don’t go anywhere. We all just stay at home in a very bad situation and really bad economical and also mental situation. We do not know how long we can continue to stay safe.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt from _Reveal_’s weekly radio show and podcast.

We’re now joined by Najib Aminy. He is a producer at Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting. His recent report titled “Afghanistan’s Recognition Problem.” His parents left Afghanistan in the 1970s.

It’s great to have you with us, Najib. Talk about your findings. I mean, the comparison with Ukrainians is stunning.

NAJIB AMINY: Yeah. Amy, just humbled to be here.

I think, you know, just to paraphrase from your words, I think we at Reveal started to look into this after hearing from — I mean, just for myself personally, hearing from other family members, other legal advocates, other people in the community, that this was a pathway that tens of thousands of Afghans had looked at a year ago. And, you know, for months, just silence, silence, silence. And then, by December, some rejections came through, but very few applications were granted. And so, USCIS had publicly shared some numbers, but things didn’t really seem to add up. And so, back in February, the team at Reveal FOIA’d USCIS and looked into these records, and the numbers are just — they’re just stark, not just the numbers, but even just the approaches to the two different programs.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Najib, it’s shocking that a country, Afghanistan, where the United States was involved in a war for 20 years, and many people there cooperated with the U.S. forces, those folks are being asked to pay to apply for humanitarian parole, whereas Ukrainians are able to apply for free. What do you make of why — why this policy difference?

NAJIB AMINY: So, I think the root is down to the immigration system. And so, Afghans at the time were looking at different immigration pathways. There was a special immigrant visa. There is the Priority 1, the Priority 2 program. The reality is, and was at the time, that all these systems were backlogged. And so, lawmakers, legal advocates were actually pushing Afghans to apply for this program called the humanitarian parole. It’s something that’s used in extreme urgent situations, if you need to do surgery or if you want to go and visit a dying relative that might be in the U.S. And so, this specific program, it doesn’t — you know, it isn’t a pathway to sort of citizenship, but it is temporary entry into the U.S. And one of the criteria is harm. And so, tens of thousands of Afghans believed that they were in harm and that they were eligible for the program. And USCIS even had a webpage with instructions for Afghans for this program, instructions as detailed to write, you know, “Please write ‘expedited’ in black ink in the top right corner.”

And so, this was a program that was the last avenue — I shouldn’t say “last,” but, you know, one of the last possibilities to leave the country. And, you know, just some of the findings, it typically takes USCIS 90 days to process these applications. The data shows that it’s taken more than twice as long. We just heard from Nulufar that those kinds of delays, that limbo, I mean, there’s the psychological impact of it, but there’s also the physical safety, where — how much longer can you stay in these safe houses? How much, you know, can you sort of like stay put before either, you know, perhaps the Taliban might come knocking on your door, or you just — you run out of resources to continue living in that kind of situation?

And so, going back to your question, Juan — why are people paying $575 for an application fee, when Ukrainians are offered a different program where there is no fee? — I mean, that comes down to a decision made by the Biden administration to say, for Afghans, this is the path for humanitarian parole, but for Ukrainians, this is the path for humanitarian parole. Now, I want to be clear: Like, Ukraine is very much an active war zone. And legal advocates are all for the Uniting for Ukraine program. In fact, if anything, it’s kind of the model of what humanitarian parole could, should, maybe needs to be. But the discrepancy, or the idea that here’s a program that rolled out months after the departure from Kabul, and it’s still only being applied for Ukrainians, whereas Afghans are still in this state of limbo, I just think a lot of people in this community, in this diaspora, legal advocates, they just have a lot of questions.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you — on Friday, we interviewed Anatol Lieven, senior fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, about the disparity between how Ukrainian refugees are treated here, how many are accepted, and how Afghan refugees are welcomed here or not. This was his response.

ANATOL LIEVEN: Well, I mean, the response to Ukraine has obviously been — and Ukrainian refugees — has been vastly more generous. Now, not giving asylum to people who worked for the United States and Britain is obviously disgraceful. It’s dishonorable. I have to say, though, that when it comes to much larger numbers of refugees from Afghanistan, as we have seen from previous generations of migrants to the West, there has been often real problems with integration, and therefore, you know, even in the first generation, let alone the second generation, with some of these people who have come to the West as refugees then turning to extremism and terrorism. So, I’m afraid that, you know, simply saying that we must accept anyone who wants to leave Afghanistan and can is not a solution. You know, Ukrainians, like Poles and others, are much, much easier, frankly, to integrate and much more likely to be successful in Western societies. I mean, that sounds harsh, but I’m afraid it is a fact.

AMY GOODMAN: “A fact,” Najib Aminy?

NAJIB AMINY: I’m perplexed as to why he would even say that out loud. I mean, how to answer this question? I think — let’s break it down like this. There’s so much focus on just Afghans who might have a connection to Western governments, if they were translators or if they worked with the forces. And I think, let’s even unpack that before addressing the previous speaker. That needs to stop, because all it’s suggesting is that Afghans who were part of the effort are the only Afghans that matter, when, in fact, you know, for the past 20 years, and if you want to go back even further, back in the ’80s and that conflict, the U.S. involvement in that country, it spans generations. And so, this notion that only translators are the ones who have priority, or only those who helped out with the forces, when, in fact, like, there’s a direct connection or a very strong connection between most average Afghans and the U.S. effort over the past two decades. It doesn’t just boil down to people who might have been translators.

As to the point about integration, I mean, what’s the rubric? What’s the metric? And is it just because you come from Europe that all of a sudden you get a pass, versus other countries are just like nope? You might have a different affiliation of food or faith or language or clothing or culture, and as for that, it’s difficult to integrate, therefore, you know what, [inaudible] — like, I don’t know if that’s — I guess, to answer your question: Is that a fact? Hard no.

AMY GOODMAN: Najib Aminy, I want to thank you for being with us, producer at Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting. We’ll link to your piece, “Afghanistan’s Recognition Problem.” Back in 30 seconds.