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U.S. is rejecting over 90% of Afghans seeking to enter the country on humanitarian grounds

U.S. barring entrance for displaced Afghans
U.S. officials rejecting Afghans' requests to enter nation on humanitarian grounds 04:25

Zaker Hussain told the U.S. government that his brother, Mohammad, was at risk of being harmed by the Taliban because of his own work at the Afghan presidential palace, his membership in the long-persecuted Hazara minority group and Hussain's role as a combat translator for the U.S. Marine Corps.

The former Afghan translator, whose war-time service helping Marines find and deactivate improvised explosive devices (IEDs) earned him U.S. resettlement and eventual citizenship, hoped the U.S. would allow his brother to enter the country on humanitarian grounds through a process known as parole. 

Hussain explained in a signed affidavit that his brother — and his wife and young children — were in great danger because of his own years of working with the U.S.-backed Afghan government, as well as the assistance Hussain provided to the U.S. military in its fight against the Taliban.

But the evidence he submitted, ranging from Afghan government IDs and passports, to news articles detailing Taliban attacks against Hazaras and U.S. translators, was not enough. Hussain's application on behalf of his brother was denied by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) on December 29, 2021.

"USCIS generally offers parole based on protection needs only when USCIS finds that the beneficiary is at risk of severe targeted or individualized harm in the country where the beneficiary is located or is at risk of imminent return to a country where the beneficiary would be harmed," the rejection letter said.

"USCIS did not find sufficient evidence of the nature noted above to establish eligibility for parole," the letter continued.

Zaker Hussain in an undated photo in Afghanistan. Zaker Hussain

After the Taliban reconquered Afghanistan last summer, the U.S. evacuated 124,000 U.S. citizens and residents; third country nationals; and Afghans as part of the largest airlift since the Vietnam War. It then resettled more than 70,000 Afghans who aided the U.S. war effort or were deemed to be at risk of Taliban persecution.

Because of the hurried and chaotic evacuations, however, not all Afghans who could be eligible for U.S. resettlement were evacuated. Many of those who were left behind began filing applications for parole, which allows U.S. officials to authorize the entry of immigrants without visas on urgent humanitarian grounds.

Since July 2021, USCIS has received over 46,000 applications from Afghans hoping to come to the U.S. through the parole process. But most parole applications from Afghans remain unresolved — and over 90% of fewer than 5,000 fully adjudicated requests have been denied, USCIS statistics shared with CBS News show.  

As of June 2, only 297 parole requests from Afghans had been approved by USCIS, while 4,246 requests had been rejected, according to the agency figures, which suggest that most of the tens of thousands of pending cases will be rejected under the standards being used by the U.S. government.

For different reasons, those filing parole requests were not among those who were evacuated and resettled by U.S. officials last year following the abrupt collapse of the Afghan government. In many cases, they were unable to enter Kabul's airport in time before the evacuation flights stopped.

Hussain's wife, baby daughter and one of his brothers were able to get on an evacuation flight and later joined him in Virginia in August 2021. But his other brother Mohammed, sister-in-law and their children were not able to enter Kabul's airport amid the chaos caused by thousands of desperate Afghans hoping to flee Taliban rule.

Mohammad, who asked for his surname to be omitted to protect his identity, said he has been in hiding ever since. With the birth of his baby girl last year, Mohammad has three children to care for — but he has not been able to work, fearing that it could lead the Taliban to discover his whereabouts. 

When the U.S. rejected his parole application, Mohammad said he felt "like a dead person but breathing." The affidavit included in his application said the Taliban has access to his files and former office in the presidential palace, where Mohammad worked as a painter and architect in the Office of the President.

"We don't feel safe," he said through a translator. "We don't know what will happen in an hour. We don't know what will happen tomorrow."

Afghan refugees in Pakistan
Children play with a bicycle wheel as Afghan refugees are struggling to survive under difficult conditions in Islamabad, Pakistan on May 29, 2022. Refugees living in the camp continue to stay in the country due to the economic and political problems in Afghanistan. Muhammed Semih Ugurlu/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Hussain, who is now a caseworker for a refugee resettlement group in Virginia, said he regularly sends money to his family in Afghanistan so they can purchase basic necessities. But he said he feels a deep sense of guilt and constantly worries about their safety.

"They are in danger as a consequence of me supporting the U.S. government," said Hussain, who arrived in the U.S. in 2014 under the Special Immigrant Visa program for Afghans who aided American military forces.

Alexander Wu, a former U.S. Marine Corps captain who served with Hussain during his 2012 deployment in Afghanistan's Helmand province, said his former translator should not have to worry whether his family members will be harmed or even killed.

"Awful stuff happens everywhere but this is something that is uniquely a direct result of a U.S. policy choice," Wu said. "These are people that we served with."

"A jarring example of inequity"

Since the 1950s, the U.S. has used the parole authority during numerous crises to quickly resettle groups of refugees, including Hungarians fleeing Soviet repression, Cubans escaping communism and Vietnamese seeking a safe haven following the fall of Saigon.

The Biden administration has used parole liberally, invoking it to admit some asylum-seekers along the U.S.-Mexico border, at-risk Central American children, Haitians and Cubans seeking to reunite with family in the U.S., Ukrainian refugees and the tens of thousands of Afghans it evacuated last year

But the administration has relied on narrower eligibility rules when adjudicating parole applications from Afghans who were not evacuated by the U.S. last summer, prompting refugee advocates to raise accusations of disparate treatment and discrimination.

In response to the criticism, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) noted that parole is not intended to replace the U.S. refugee program, which officials said Afghans seeking refuge should use to try to come to the U.S. However, those hoping to enter the years-long U.S. refugee pipeline need to be in a third country.

DHS said Afghans will be granted parole in "some limited circumstances," citing cases of immediate family members of U.S. citizens or residents, former Kabul embassy staff, Special Immigrant Visa applicants, immediate relatives of Afghans relocated to the U.S. last year and others who face "serious, targeted harm."

One of the reasons that most Afghan parole cases remain unadjudicated, DHS added, is because USCIS is typically used to handling around 2,000 applications per year — not tens of thousands of requests. 

DHS also noted that 70% of Afghan parole applicants are in Afghanistan, where they cannot undergo required interviews because there's no U.S. consulate there. Applicants who are deemed eligible for parole need to travel to third countries to have their cases approved, DHS said.

"This is complicating the completion of some humanitarian parole applications that would otherwise be approved," the department told CBS News.

But advocates said officials can conduct interviews remotely or waive them, noting that Ukrainian refugees are not required to undergo interviews before being paroled into the U.S. The government, they said, should also allow private citizens, such as veterans, to sponsor the resettlement of Afghans, including their war-time allies.

"Just in my own personal capacity, I know hundreds of people who would be willing to sponsor Afghans," said Chris Purdy, an Iraq War veteran who now leads Veterans for American Ideals, a branch of the refugee advocacy group Human Rights First.

An Afghan family reunion years in the making 02:46

Purdy acknowledged the U.S. was ill-equipped to process tens of thousands of parole cases last year. But he said the government has had nearly a year since the fall of Kabul to set up a program to resettle at-risk Afghans who were left behind, citing the quick creation of a private sponsorship initiative for Ukrainian refugees.

Two months after Russia invaded Ukraine, the Biden administration launched a program dubbed Uniting for Ukraine to allow private individuals to help those displaced by the war come to the U.S. Unlike parole cases, which require $575 application fees, the Uniting for Ukraine program is free.

As opposed to most U.S. immigration programs, which take months or years to process petitions, Uniting for Ukraine cases are being processed electronically in a matter of weeks or even days. In less than three months, 37,000 Ukrainians have been granted U.S. travel authorization and 11,000 have arrived, USCIS data show.

"Processing one group's claims at a much lower evidentiary threshold, and at no cost, without doing so for the other is a jarring example of inequity," said Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. "This process is meant to save lives and reunite families — an applicant's fate shouldn't be dependent on their nationality."

A senior DHS official, who requested anonymity to discuss the parole process, said she understands why some advocates have made the comparison between the processing of Ukrainians and that of Afghans. But the official said the populations have different characteristics and circumstances.

"This was a U.S.-led evacuation, as opposed to in the Ukrainian context, where these individuals are buying their own plane tickets and organizing their own logistics and their own travel," the DHS official said.

The official noted the U.S. is still processing some Afghans, including through an expedited refugee process in Qatar. But only a limited number of Afghans have benefited from the process — and flights out of Afghanistan are scarce. Since March 1, 3,700 at-risk Afghans have arrived in the U.S., DHS data shows.

The Biden administration has also argued that Ukrainians are seeking a temporary safe haven, while Afghans are searching for permanent resettlement. But advocates said they also expect many Ukrainians to stay in the U.S. permanently, especially if the war in Ukraine continues for the foreseeable future.

Purdy said the U.S. can and should allow Afghans to access the same process offered to Ukrainians. "Just because the Ukrainians are fleeing a conflict in Europe and Afghans are fleeing Central Asia isn't an excuse to have different systems," he said.

Angelo Fernandez, a DHS spokesperson, said the Biden administration is committed to helping both Ukrainians displaced by the war in their homeland and at-risk Afghans.

"The United States swiftly welcomed more than 79,000 Afghans through Operation Allies Welcome, an unprecedented historic effort, providing them with work authorization, immigration benefits, and other support as they begin their new lives in America — and we are prepared to welcome additional Afghans over the coming weeks and months," Fernandez said.  

Hussain attributes his steadfast faith in the U.S. and its institutions to his two years working alongside U.S. service members and the help they provided his wife and daughter during last year's evacuations. While that faith has been tested, he still hopes the U.S. will reconsider its decision to deny his brother's application.

"My family is in extreme danger," he said.

Wu, the former Marine Corps officer who served with Hussain, said he appreciates when people thank him for his service. But he said Afghan translators like Hussain deserve the most praise.

"It's really difficult to imagine fighting a fight when your family can be threatened," Wu said. "It's easy for us in a lot of ways since we're going off to different places. People can't send us letters saying, 'I know where your family lives.'"

Zaker Hussain and Alex Wu in Virginia in November 2021. Zaker Hussain

Hussain was not just a translator, Wu said. He helped Marines understand Afghan culture and established a sense of trust between them and Afghan forces amid concerns over green-on-blue incidents in which infiltrators targeted U.S. personnel. Most importantly, Wu said, Hussain risked his life for a U.S. mission. 

The least the U.S. can do, Wu said, is offer Hussain's family a viable pathway to come here.

"They served our country and theirs. But it was an allyship with us," Wu said. "Turning our backs on them is shameful."

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