The US is expanding eligibility for Afghans and others wishing to enter on humanitarian grounds
The Biden administration quietly expanded admission rules for immigrants applying for humanitarian entry into the US amid mounting criticism of the rejection of thousands of applications from Afghans seeking refuge from the Taliban, internal government guidelines and training materials, published by CBS News Show were received increased.
The policy changes, implemented internally this spring, concern a decades-old legal authority called Parole, which allows US immigration officials to allow visa-free immigrants into the country if they have urgent humanitarian needs or if their arrival has a ” significant common good.”
US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agency that oversees the legal immigration system, typically receives about 2,000 parole applications from immigrants abroad each year. But the number of parole applications rose dramatically after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in August 2021.
Tens of thousands of Afghans, many of whom could not reach Kabul airport in time to be evacuated by the US last summer, have applied for parole. These include Afghans who have assisted US forces, their relatives, former Afghan government employees, members of the long-persecuted Hazara ethnic group and others who believe they may face persecution by the Taliban.
Between July 2021 and earlier this month, USCIS received over 46,000 parole applications from Afghans abroad. But as of June 2, it had decided less than 5,000 applications and rejected 93% of them, CBS Newsearlier this month. More than 40,000 Afghan parole applications remain unresolved.
Several USCIS parole denials reviewed by CBS News said Afghan applicants could not show they faced “serious targeted or individual harm” or “immediate return to a country where the beneficiary would be harmed.”
The extremely high denial rate and massive backlog of unsolved cases drew scathing criticism from some Democratic lawmakers and refugee advocates, who accused US officials of relying on a narrow interpretation of the parole board to unfairly deny requests by desperate Afghans.
Supporters also contrasted the lofty denials with the Biden administration’s widespread use of the parole power to take in other populations, including Ukrainians displaced to their homeland by Russia’s invasion and more than 70,000 Afghans who made it last year had to be evacuated and resettled by the USA.
Internal USCIS guidance obtained by CBS News shows that the agency has expanded eligibility for humanitarian parole to those who can prove to be a member of a “target group” that has faced “widespread, systematic or pervasive” attacks. Members of a target group must expect “serious harm” that could include physical or psychological injury or death, the guidelines say.
Prior to the changes, applicants for humanitarian parole were required to provide evidence from third parties that they specifically named as targets of serious harm.
The revised guidance for USCIS Arbitrators states that this evidence is “still the preferred evidence” but has expanded other forms of “strong evidence” to include country status reports showing targeting of a group; Evidence that the applicant belongs to this group; and evidence that potential persecutors know or are likely to know that the applicant is a member of that group.
“Isolated incidents of harm to other group members will generally not be sufficient,” the guidelines say.
For applications from third-country nationals, the guidelines instruct judges to consider an applicant’s lack of access to international protection programmes; risk of being seriously harmed there; the possibility of their deportation to a place where they could be harmed; and their living conditions and legal status.
USCIS confirmed the policy changes in a statement to CBS News, saying they were the result of an internal review of the humanitarian parole process.
“USCIS has issued revised guidance to judges on the types of evidence we consider relevant to evaluating requests for parole, based primarily on protections from individualized or targeted harm,” the agency said. “Given the significant influx of new parole applications based primarily on protection needs following the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, USCIS has determined that a review of our policies is appropriate.”
The policy changes implemented by USCIS could benefit some of the tens of thousands of Afghans pending parole, as well as future applicants. But immigration lawyers said the impact of the rules would depend on how judges enforce them and whether they reduce the high rate of rejection.
“On the face of it, it sounds like it could potentially be beneficial. We just have to see how it’s actually implemented and judged,” said Karlyn Kurichety, the legal director of Al Otro Lado, a California-based advocacy group that has made parole inquiries on behalf of Afghans.
In addition, USCIS has presented other reasons why it has not processed most Afghan parole applications and why the vast majority of cases have been denied, including arguing that those seeking permanent settlement should use the US refugee process , which can last for years.
In a response earlier this month to concerns raised in December 2021 by Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey, DHS Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs Alice Lugo said a nine-fold increase in parole applications increased processing times by “several months “ have extended.
“The primary limiting factor in making timely decisions on parole requests is that the volume of evidence significantly exceeds available resources,” Lugo wrote in her June 14 letter, noting that USCIS has assigned 90 officers to review these cases.
Lugo also insisted that the “standard of proof for persons applying for parole is the same regardless of the nationality or whereabouts of the beneficiary”. However, she noted that many Afghan parole applicants remain in Afghanistan, where they are unable to face the necessary face-to-face interviews with US officials.
“However, because the US Embassy in Afghanistan has ceased operations, including all consular processing, USCIS is unable to complete the approval of an application for parole while the beneficiary is in Afghanistan,” Lugo wrote in her letter. available to CBS News.
Refugee advocates have urged USCIS to conduct remote or refrain from conducting probation interviews for Afghans, as it has done for displaced Ukrainians released to the United States under a private sponsorship program created in late April. They have also advocated a similar private sponsorship policy for Afghans.
As part of the Uniting for Ukraine program, USCIS evaluates sponsorship requests from US citizens to determine if they have the financial means to support displaced Ukrainians. Once these sponsorship offers are approved and background checks are completed, Ukrainians identified by US sponsors will be allowed to travel to the US, where they will be granted probation by airport officials.
Humanitarian applications submitted by Afghans and others generally require an application fee of $575, while sponsorship applications for the Uniting for Ukraine program are free. Unlike parole applications submitted by Afghans, Uniting for Ukraine’s cases are processed electronically within weeks or even days.
DHS has denied that it used different standards for these populations, saying it was committed to assisting displaced Ukrainians as well as vulnerable Afghans. It has also been argued that Afghans are looking for permanent resettlement while Ukrainians need a temporary safe haven.
But critics disagree. Markey, the Massachusetts Democrat, called the processing of Afghan parole applications “dismal and discriminatory.”
“Thousands of Afghans have been denied parole on humanitarian grounds, and only a few dozen have been approved,” Markey told CBS News. “This is a moral crisis. The American people are ready to welcome these families into our neighborhood with open arms.”