Afghan refugees in Indonesia protest outside the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR's office in Jakarta

How humanitarian parole works, and why so many Afghan families are waiting to be reunited

Months after the United States pulled out of Afghanistan, Andisha Shah is still waiting to be reunited with her sister and nephews. Since last September, they’ve been in Pakistan, where they were relocated after the Taliban fighters began their takeover.

In those early days when the Taliban was regaining control of different cities in Afghanistan, Shah’s sister was scared to leave her apartment. Shah, who has lived in the United States for about eight years, then leaned on the communities she built in Missouri and in California to help her get her sister to safety, or at least out of their home country for the time being.

“I feel so helpless I cannot do anything for her, or for my country,” said Shah, when the PBS NewsHour spoke with her for the first time last fall.

Shah’s family is still waiting across the border in Pakistan while their relatives in the U.S. hold out for a decision on an application for humanitarian parole, a special program for people who could be granted temporary entry into the United States for “urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit.”

The number of Afghans in the U.S. applying for this parole has skyrocketed since the fall of Kabul, and many families like Shah’s have yet to be accepted or denied. Shah’s sister is one of at least 45,000 people who have applied for humanitarian parole since July 1 of last year, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

Of those applicants, only about 2,200 have been denied and approximately 270 have been conditionally approved, according to USCIS. The agency said it has increased its staff to address the large volume of applications. In a given year, the agency said it typically receives fewer than 2,000 requests for all nationalities. To apply, applicants are required to pay a $575 filing fee unless they are granted a waiver. That fee, however, is not refunded if a person is denied.

READ MORE: ‘I feel so helpless.’ Afghans in the U.S. worry for friends and family back home

Meanwhile, Afghan families in the U.S. continue to worry about their loved ones abroad.

“She has been through hell,” Shah said of her sister. “But at least she’s safe.”

Humanitarian parole, per USCIS policy, is not a pathway to lawful permanent residence in the U.S., nor does it grant immigration status. It’s seen as a last resort to unite families, one that in the past has taken about 90 days to adjudicate, according to the agency.

In April, the U.S. launched a fast-tracked parole program for Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s war. The new pathway, in contrast to humanitarian parole, does not require any application fees, and those who already applied for humanitarian parole before the new process was created can withdraw the forms they filed and be refunded.

“We will help deliver on the President’s commitment to welcome 100,000 Ukrainian citizens and others forced to flee their homes in Ukraine, and our partnership with the Department of Homeland Security will help us fulfill that commitment,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said on the day the program, called Uniting for Ukraine, was announced.

The department added that the Ukraine program would be a quicker process given that processing times for humanitarian parole requests are “significantly longer than usual.”

However, the U.S. hasn’t launched an additional parole program specifically for Afghan people – something that attorneys and organizations have called on the government to do.

A spokesperson from USCIS says the U.S. welcomed more than 78,000 Afghans through Operation Allies Welcome, which the agency notes used humanitarian parole to make happen. It added that it is “prepared to welcome more people in the coming weeks and months.”

Laila Ayub, an immigration lawyer who helps Afghans file for humanitarian parole, said that although she hopes Ukrianians are able to benefit from the new pathway, she and many others are still waiting for some kind of new solution that helps Afghan people too.

“My organization and countless others have advocated for months for a parole program for Afghans, and the government has given many excuses as to why they cannot implement one,” Ayub told the NewsHour in an email, “but the reality is simply that Afghans, like other non-white, non-European communities, are up against an exclusionary immigration system,” she said.

The U.S., she added, “has an unique obligation to provide Afghans a pathway to refuge and family reunification.”

A not- so- simple process

Applying for humanitarian parole can be a long and confusing process, say immigration lawyers and those who have applied. For starters, a request can only be processed for Afghan nationals who are in other countries because the U.S. embassy in Kabul and other consular services are closed, and applicants must “successfully complete in-person vetting and biometrics screenings” in order to be approved, the USCIS spokesman said. However those outside of the country, such as Shah’s family, can apply.

Filing the necessary documents for parole also comes with a $575 fee, which Shah said adds another financial layer of difficulty for families fleeing the fall of their home country while seeking to reunite with their loved ones in another.

“We’re just drowning,” Shah said. “We’re just waiting to get to the end.”

Immigration lawyers representing families applying for humanitarian parole say the process is also not always transparent. Its complications prompted attorney Ayub and a group of other lawyers to start a pro bono project to advocate for and steer resources to Afghan people looking to submit a parole request.

What started as concern for their own families bloomed into “hundreds of messages from people asking for help,” Ayub said.

She remembers hearing from other lawyers that their clients were getting approved and eventually the group, known as Project ANAR or Afghan Network for Advocacy and Resources, created a form for people to fill out if they needed aid after the U.S. pulled troops out of the country. Ayub said they opened a form for people to request help in mid-August and by the time they closed it in the second week of September, they had more than 8,000 requests for help.

So far she said Project ANAR’s volunteers have been in touch with several hundred families who were seeking humanitarian parole.

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A lot of Project ANAR’s work is centered around not only helping people file applications, but also pushing for said applications to be processed and processed quickly. Photo courtesy of Project ANAR

A lot of Project ANAR’s work is centered around not only helping people file applications, but also pushing for said applications to be processed and processed quickly. Photo courtesy of Project ANAR

However, helping hundreds of families also meant finding a way to cover hundreds of filing fees. In August 2021, Ayub said her team raised more than $350,000 to help cover the $575 fee. But then when the U.S. withdrawal came to a close things “quickly changed.”

“The U.S. was making this pathway really hard for people and the applications were taking so long to process,” Ayub said.

Like many, she realized it was possible that many people were going to be denied, so ANAR started applying for fee waivers. USCIS allows people to apply for the filing fee to be waived if they apply and show a need.

However, Katie Meyer, assistant professor of practice and director of Washington University’s Immigration Law Clinic, said the waiver process is not simple, either. In recent months, she has applied for humanitarian parole on behalf of Afghan American clients, hoping to bring their remaining family members to the U.S.

In going through the process of filing the necessary forms, Meyer said the specific form does mention the option to file for a waiver “but yet to get that form approved, we have to show the person sponsoring you is able to support you, and [that] you would not need public benefits. … the fact you ask for the fee to be waived could contradict any evidence you’re supplying that you can support the person right now.” Therein lies a tricky scenario to navigate.

Meyer’s client decided to pay the fee anyway.

“That family member made a decision, this is a significant amount of money, but I don’t want any reason for the government to say no. It is already uncertain enough whether they would grant it in my family’s case, I don’t want to give them another reason to say no,” she said.

For her, as a litigator, that was a both compelling and telling decision. In that specific case, the client came to the U.S. in the early 2000s. Meyer worked with her to get asylum, then permanent residency and eventually citizenship. She’d later help the client file a petition for her mother and her sister as the client started saving to buy a home.

That dream was put aside. She has now decided to use that money – amounting to tens of thousands, Meyer said – to bring the rest of her family to the states.

“It was really heartbreaking,” Meyer said. “She was like, ‘Money is not going to be a reason that in the end, the government denies.’”

Meyer was notified of the receipt of their applications for humanitarian parole in September 2021. They haven’t heard anything since.

The NewsHour requested data from USCIS on fee waiver denials and grants and has not received a response on that specific question.

Ayub estimates that out of the nearly 1,400 applications filed through ANAR, fewer than 100 decisions have been received, “and they’ve been pretty much entirely denials and a few administrative closures, which is a decision that comes to Afghans who are still in Afghanistan, and they’re told that they may be eligible for parole, but their case is being closed.”

Administrative closures, Ayub said, can be reopened if the applicant can relocate to a country outside of Afghanistan and notify the U.S. government, which she notes can be difficult.

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ANAR volunteers attended a protest in front of DHS headquarters in Washington D.C. in January calling on the department to approve more applications. Photo courtesy of Project ANAR

ANAR volunteers attended a protest in front of DHS headquarters in Washington D.C. in January calling on the department to approve more applications. Photo courtesy of Project ANAR

The NewsHour obtained a copy of an administrative closure notice USCIS sent to one applicant in Afghanistan in January. The letter, in part, reads: “USCIS has marked your case as administratively closed in our system, but we will reopen your case if the parole beneficiary relocates to a country with a U.S. Embassy or Consulate or if USCIS is able to complete processing of parole requests for individuals in Afghanistan at a later date.”

On behalf of hundreds of applicants, ANAR started filing for humanitarian parole in August. Ayub said they did not start to see any decisions until December and January. “It’s taking at least six months,” she said.

The USCIS did not respond to a question from the NewsHour about the current average waiting time for humanitarian parole applicants. On the agency’s website, it says while USCIS tries to process all parole requests “quickly and efficiently,” applicants “should expect processing might take more than 90 days.”

Waiting for answers

As more Afghans are denied, immigration lawyers and families are trying to better understand why applications are getting rejected. Knowing this would help them how to move forward.

In a statement, a USCIS spokesperson said strong positive factors or characteristics for a person hoping to be considered for humanitarian parole include being the immediate family member of a U.S. citizen or a lawful permanent resident, a former locally employed staff member in the embassy in Kabul or an immediate family member of one, or a Special Immigrant Visa applicant who received Chief of Mission approval or an immediate family member of one, among a list of other factors.

The NewsHour obtained a copy of a humanitarian parole denial notice delivered to another applicant in January. USCIS told the applicant that the agency reviewed their request “in accordance with the law, regulation, and USCIS policy” and determined that parole was not warranted. At the end, it states that the person did not provide enough evidence to “establish eligibility for parole.”

In the meantime, Shah and both Meyer and Ayub’s clients wait for a letter, a phone call or some other confirmation they will soon be reunited with their families once again.

While Shah and her supporters have continued to reach out to lawyers, nonprofits and their elected officials for help, Ayub has worked with other organizations to ask the federal government to help Afghan people.

In October, ANAR drafted a letter to the U.S. government signed by 120 organizations calling for more transparency in the humanitarian parole process. Nearly two months later, a second letter expressing a fear of mass parole denials signed by 225 organizations went out. In February of 2022 the most recent letter went out, posted to the Human Rights First website, calling for the Department of Homeland Security and the USCIS to create an Afghan parole program to operate specifically for at-risk Afghans.

Ayub told the NewsHour while the U.S. government has acknowledged that they have seen the letters and some organizations have been in “stakeholder engagements with the government,” they “haven’t received a direct response.”

In March, Homeland Security announced that Afghan refugees will be allowed to stay in the U.S. for 18 months, under temporary protected status.

But the move only protects those already in the U.S. from returning to unsafe conditions, and Ayub and others want the government to take it a step further for Afghan nationals who are still pursuing parole and other pathways to escape Taliban rule.

“We’ve seen that the government can recognize that people in Afghanistan are worthy of protection,” she said.