Afghans in US immigration limbo watch Ukrainians breeze through

Zahra was heading home from work on June 23 in business attire and a headscarf when she was stopped at a checkpoint manned by Taliban guards in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul. They reprimanded her for not wearing clothing they deemed appropriate and demanded that she instead wear a head covering that conceals everything besides the wearer’s eyes.

“Many times the [Taliban] stopped us on the street,” Zahra said, adding that on some occasions, fighters have even pointed guns in her face and yelled at her. “I changed my outfit because I have no choice.”

After returning to power last August, the Taliban imposed sweeping restrictions on women, including the types of jobs they could do. According to the International Labour Organization, the share of women in employment is expected to fall by 21 percent by mid-2022,

Zahra – who is not using her real name for security reasons (like all Afghans mentioned in this story) – said she is able to work in the United Nations compound in Kabul thanks to an agreement the organisation reached with the Taliban. However, her brother, who worked with the United States military in Afghanistan, received two letters containing death threats from the Taliban in March and has been forced to remain in hiding.

Zahra and several of her family members have applied for the special immigrant visa (SIV) programme, open to people who worked with the US forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet, as her own SIV case languished, she also decided in October 2021 to apply for humanitarian parole, a procedure that allows certain at-risk applicants to temporarily enter the US. Her SIV case was eventually denied by the State Department in January 2022 and Zahra then placed all her hopes on the parole process.

But to her dismay, she has not received any response to her application in almost nine months – and since March, has watched Ukrainians being processed more easily. According to US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) statistics, more than 60,000 refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine have received parole status between March 24 and June 23.

“I even cried actually,” Zahra said when she saw how much more concern the Ukrainian conflict generated.

This leaves thousands of at-risk Afghans in limbo in third countries or in many cases in hiding from the Taliban government as they wait for their humanitarian parole applications and SIV cases to be processed.

The Taliban had promised amnesty to those who worked under the previous Western-backed government, but reports of the group’s fighters allegedly killing people have instilled a sense of fear among Afghans affiliated with the previous administration, various international organisations and the US.

Now, having watched Ukrainian refugees receive comparatively quick processing – first under the general parole programme and later under the one the US set up specifically for Ukrainians in April – many Afghans have expressed frustration with what they see as discriminatory treatment by US immigration agencies, which has compounded the deep psychological distress many had already been experiencing as they wait to be evacuated.

Abdullah, 25, worked for years with the Afghan army as a cybersecurity engineer and after the fall of Kabul, started receiving threatening phone calls from Taliban members. When he changed his phone number, the Taliban authorities sent his family a court summons. So when he heard he could apply for humanitarian parole he was overjoyed.

“Suddenly news came that there is a programme, humanitarian parole. If you apply for that, all Afghans that are at risk are eligible for this programme,” he said. “The hope I lost, I got that hope back.”

But Abdullah, who applied in October, has now lost hope. In May, he fled to Iran in the hope of getting a visa to Brazil.

Although Abdullah is glad Ukrainians are able to seek shelter in the US, he said he feels disappointed and discriminated against.

All eight Afghans Al Jazeera spoke with, including Abdullah, said the disparities between the handling of Afghan and Ukrainian immigration cases, together with the vagaries of their long visa processes, have affected their mental health.

Fawzia, an SIV applicant who relocated to Pakistan from Kabul in early May for her visa interview at the US embassy there, landed in the hospital twice that month due to panic attacks after she received an initial refusal of her application through the consular system.

She later found out that the refusal did not necessarily mean the end of her case, but the 37-year-old was nevertheless devastated.

“In Afghanistan, the Taliban might kill the person,” Fawzia argued, “but being this much disappointed, that 100 percent will kill the person.”

Javed, 38, an SIV applicant in Kabul, said he lives in fear every day because he worked as an operations manager and translator at Bagram airbase, the largest US military installation in Afghanistan.

“Be sure, they will kill me, suddenly, without any daylight,” he said, noting that he has already been interrogated twice by the Taliban but was able to conceal his past work.

According to a January report, the UN has received “credible allegations” that Taliban authorities and their allies have killed individuals who previously worked with the US-led coalition in Afghanistan.

Javed added that in his view, Afghan SIV applicants have taken a back seat since the war in Ukraine started.

Although US authorities maintain that they are doing their best to adjudicate Afghan parole and SIV applications, a lawsuit filed in May by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Massachusetts against DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas claims that the department arbitrarily shifted its standards for humanitarian parole for Afghans.

“In September we were hearing … [that Afghans should] file humanitarian parole,” said Dan Berger, a lawyer at the law firm Curran, Berger, and Kludt who is supervising the ACLU lawsuit. “Sometime around the late fall, early winter, the messaging changed.”

During the Kabul airlift in late August, Mayorkas authorised US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers to parole certain Afghans, including those eligible for SIV. And according to the ACLU complaint, US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) promoted humanitarian parole as a solution for people trying to escape the crisis in Afghanistan.

But the complaint states that after the US had received “tens of millions” of dollars in application fees, USCIS changed the rules for parole, leading to denials or indefinite delays for thousands of people.

According to a DHS spokesperson, USCIS received more than 46,000 properly submitted parole applications from Afghans between July 1, 2021, and June 2, 2022, of which the vast majority remain unadjudicated. Only 297 Afghans were approved during that time.

Meanwhile, under the Uniting for Ukraine parole programme for Ukrainian refugees announced on April 21, more than 38,000 Ukrainians have been authorised to travel to the US according to the DHS, in addition to more than 22,000 Ukrainians who arrived on other types of parole outside the programme. Another 34,000 Ukrainian nationals have also arrived on visas since March 24.

“I think a lot does have to do with political will,” Berger said. “The programme that’s been set up for Ukraine, I’ve had people get here in weeks, literally, with very little processing and no filing fee.”

According to the DHS spokesperson, this is because it is thought that Ukrainians will return to their country after the conflict, while Afghans will require permanent resettlement in the US.

On the SIV front, a spokesperson for the State Department maintained that it is committed to “streamlin[ing] the SIV programme,” and is “developing processing alternatives” for those unable to reach countries where US consular services are available.

But even if Afghans make it to third countries, their problems are far from over. Sardar, an SIV applicant who relocated to Pakistan in May with the help of EVAC, an American non-profit organisation, will likely have to wait for a decision on his case without the right to work in Pakistan after the US delayed his case by eight months.

The US evacuated some 116,000 people during the Kabul airlift in August 2021, and according to the DHS, more than 79,000 Afghans have arrived in the US since then. However, due to the chaotic nature of the airlift at that time, not all the evacuees were from groups thought to be in jeopardy.

According to Berger, there was a window to rectify the problem by the swift processing of humanitarian parole applications for eligible Afghans at that time but creating a programme like the current one for Ukrainians remains unlikely.

For Zahra, her options for evacuation are dwindling, and if her humanitarian parole requests remain undecided, she can only hope her family gets the SIV – but not her. She says she has little hope in Afghanistan where there are few work opportunities and secure existence.

“I don’t think there is going to be a hope in what next is coming,” she said.

“It’s like a hell, like you are burning in a fire every second. I’m completely disappointed from life,” she added.