One year later: For allies stuck in Afghanistan, a mountain of red tape stands between them and the U.S.
‘Like a lottery, but it shouldn’t be,’ says one Afghan refugee who was able to get his wife to the U.S. after nearly a year
One man submitted visa applications for his entire family but only received one for himself. Another married his wife in Pakistan and now can’t get the marriage documentation needed for her green card. A former U.S. Army contractor worked on a base in Kabul for six months but fell out of touch with his supervisor and has no one to write him a letter of recommendation.
That’s just a glimpse of the countless roadblocks barring thousands of Afghans from leaving their country and coming to the U.S.
And while some are victims of oversight or human error, most are simply waiting for their applications to be reviewed, a process plagued by red tape that can sometimes last years.
As of August, U.S. Customs and Immigration Services has received almost 50,000 humanitarian parole requests, and at least 77,200 special immigrant visa applications from people still in Afghanistan, according to a report from Foreign Policy.
And according to several Afghans that spoke with the Deseret News, some asking for anonymity because their relatives are still in Kabul, there appears to be little rhyme or reason to the process. Some have their visas or humanitarian parole requests granted within months, while others are stuck in limbo despite being related to a U.S. citizen or having a letter of recommendation from a NATO official.
“It’s like hitting the jackpot. It’s like a lottery, but it shouldn’t be,” says Abdul, who was born in Afghanistan but has since become a U.S. citizen.
On Aug. 5, Abdul won that lottery when his wife, Nazdanah, stepped off the plane in Boston, after spending a year hiding in a small apartment in Kabul.
Because both Nazdanah and Abdul have family still in Afghanistan, they asked that their last names be withheld.
The two met in 2014 while Abdul was working at a U.S. military base in Kabul. Not long after, he bought a ring.
But when he came home to find the window of his home shattered and a death threat from the Taliban, Abdul fled to the U.S.
He returned periodically to Afghanistan, married Nazdanah in 2018 and promptly submitted her application for a green card, a process that’s intended to take 10 to 12 months but can sometimes drag on for years.
And drag on it did, with Abdul watching helplessly as the Taliban closed in on Kabul, taking the capitol city as the chaotic evacuation of the airport ensued. On Aug. 25, her Form I-130 was approved, a major step toward obtaining the green card. But Nazdanah, narrowly avoiding the suicide bombing that killed 183 people including 13 U.S. service members, was unable to get into the airport.
So she resigned to her brother-in-law’s apartment for the next 10 months, and Abdul went to work.
He sought help from Task Force Argo, a group of private citizens helping evacuate Americans and Afghan allies trapped in the country. He called the offices of Utah Reps. Burgess Owens, Chris Stewart and John Curtis, Sens. Mitt Romney and Mike Lee, politicians in California, activist groups, nongovernmental organizations and former U.S. military officials. He even tried to charter a flight out of Kabul airport.
His work paid off one Friday evening in June when Nazdanah received a call from the U.S. State Department — her name was on a flight manifest from Kabul to Qatar. On Aug. 5, Abdul met her at Boston Logan International Airport.
“I was extremely happy when I landed in Boston, and we saw each other after a very long time. I was so happy, very happy,” she said, Abdul translating for her.
“It was unbelievable. I could not believe this was happening,” Abdul added.
Now, you can find them taking evening walks through their Herriman neighborhood, or embarking on weekend road trips to Little Cottonwood Canyon or Park City. Nazdanah is busy studying for her driver’s license test and eager to enroll in English language classes.
She likes Utah. Like many Afghans, the Wasatch Mountains and the climate remind her of home. Her English is spotty, but when asked if she misses Afghanistan, she responds with a resounding “no.”
It would be nearly impossible to outline every single hang-up that Afghans face when trying to come to the U.S.
For one, the U.S. immigration system has seen a massive surge in applications — in a typical year, customs and immigration can expect 2,000 prospective humanitarian parolees. This year, there are over 50,000 from Afghanistan alone.
Further crowding the system is the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine. The Biden administration launched Uniting for Ukraine in the spring, an avenue for refugees to obtain humanitarian parole if they have a sponsor in the U.S. That directs even more people toward a program that prior to 2021 was rarely used.
Humanitarian parole also isn’t cheap. There is a $575 fee just to file the application, which can be a year’s worth of wages for some Afghans struggling amid the country’s economic turmoil.
Then there’s the myriad logistical issues. Some Afghans hastily destroyed any documents that might link them to U.S. forces when the Taliban arrived — documents required to apply for humanitarian parole or a special immigrant visa. Access to the internet, a printer, and reliable communication between sponsors and government officials can delay the process. The Department of State relies on sporadic, often biweekly, flights from Kabul to Qatar that fill up fast. The risks are heightened for women, who are frequently stopped if they leave the house without a male guardian — just last week, the Taliban stopped dozens of women attempting to fly out of Kabul because they were flying alone.
Others decide it’s safer to flee to Pakistan to undergo the application process, only to discover new risks and red tape, in a country also burdened by the crisis in Afghanistan.
All the while reports of killings, bogus imprisonments, torture and forced marriages across Afghanistan continue to surface, often the Taliban targeting the very people trying to apply for U.S. residency.
“There’s more potholes in this road than you would ever believe,” said Kim Corbridge.
A retired Utahn whose son served tours in both Afghanistan and Iraq, Corbridge has been working the better part of the year helping Afghans navigate the complicated bureaucracy. Starting with the interpreter who worked alongside his son, Corbridge is now helping nearly 100 Afghans, including Abdul and Nazdanah.
“There’s no mechanism for anybody to get any kind of feedback in the process,” he said. “I’m working with a guy that has sent his application in five times starting in September. And he received an email back that says they got it. But since they haven’t processed it and never give him a case number, there’s nothing he can do except sit there and wait.”
On Thursday, the Biden administration announced a pivot to a long-term approach to helping Afghans who worked for or alongside the U.S. government. Part of that strategy means eliminating humanitarian parole.
Now, the government will prioritize Afghans who fall into three categories — family of U.S. citizens, permanent residents, and anyone evacuated and resettled in the past year; people who qualify for a special immigrant visa; and refugee applicants defined as the “most vulnerable.”
How the Afghan Adjustment Act could help
On Aug. 8, a bipartisan group of senators introduced the Afghan Adjustment Act, a law that immigration groups have been calling for since the evacuation of Kabul.
The bill would create a pathway to permanent residency for humanitarian parolees, whose legal status expires after 18 months.
The adjustment would also relieve the backlog on asylum and special immigrant visa applications — many parolees currently waiting on a visa could apply for permanent residency through this new pathway.
Plus, the requirements for a special immigrant visa would be loosened, meaning people who had hoped to obtain humanitarian parole could instead go through the more efficient visa process, curtailing their wait time in Afghanistan.
And the bill would create an interagency task force, adding manpower to the system that could result in quicker response times and a more efficient review process.
The bill is backed by a number of faith groups, national security experts and immigration advocates.
“We must live up to our promises to protect our allies who remain in Afghanistan,” Dan Kosten, assistant vice president of policy and advocacy at the National Immigration Forum, said in a statement. “As communities across the U.S. continue to welcome Afghan evacuees with open arms, Congress must pass the Afghan Adjustment Act to provide resettled Afghans a legal pathway to permanency and stability as they rebuild their lives here.”