President Biden’s aggressive push to admit up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees has generated resentment among those clamoring for his administration to help extract the tens of thousands of Afghan citizens desperate to escape Taliban rule now eight months after the calamitous end of America’s war there.
The announcement was cheered by human rights advocates who have pressured the president to expand U.S. capacity to bring in refugees fleeing conflict. But critics have questioned why his administration has so far not exhibited such urgency in helping those left behind in Afghanistan — many of whom worked for or alongside the U.S. government throughout the 20-year war.
“The juxtaposition of the administration’s response to Ukraine and their response to Afghanistan is pretty stark,” said Adam Bates, policy counsel at the International Refugee Assistance Project.
Biden’s “Uniting for Ukraine” program aims to ease requests for humanitarian parole, a two-year legal status, after which Ukrainians who wish to remain in the United States permanently must apply for asylum or another immigrant status. It carries no fees, entails less-onerous paperwork compared to the government’s traditional parole program, and applicants visiting the website are assured, “We anticipate that the process will be fairly quick.” To be eligible, Ukrainians must have “resided in Ukraine immediately prior to the Russian invasion” in February and suffered displacement as a result.
It’s a lot like the approach many military veterans groups, Afghans and refugee advocates have been “begging” the Biden administration to implement since well before the United States withdrew from Afghanistan in August, Bates said. “On the one hand, this Uniting for Ukraine program shows how quickly and efficiently the U.S. government, and the Biden administration in particular, can protect vulnerable people when they’re committed to doing that,” he added. “It also demonstrates that a lot of the things the administration said to justify not providing protections to Afghans were simply not true.”
The administration says it evacuated more than 76,000 Afghans to the United States last year as U.S. troops and diplomats departed Kabul and in the weeks that immediately followed. About 2,000 additional Afghans have arrived since then, the administration says, though it’s unclear how many people the U.S. government has helped escape after the final military transports left Hamid Karzai International Airport.
Administration officials firmly dispute critics’ assertions that Biden has established different standards for the two groups in need. “The magnitude and speed of the displacement of Ukrainians caused by Russia’s unprovoked war have required a swift, significant, and coordinated international response,” said one individual who, like some others, responded to questions via email and on the condition of anonymity, citing internal rules. “Welcoming Ukrainian refugees will not limit our ability to welcome Afghans and other individuals looking for refuge in this country.”
The numbers tell a more complicated story.
DHS says that since July, a few weeks before the Afghan government’s collapse, it has received 45,000 applications for humanitarian parole from those unable to evacuate on a U.S. military flight. Because there is no dedicated resource like Uniting for Ukraine to facilitate Afghans’ applications, their requests have flooded the government’s general humanitarian parole program. The associated fee is $575 per applicant — or, as critics note, more than what the World Bank estimates an average Afghan earned annually before the U.S. withdrawal.
This process also requires applicants to prove they are under direct threat, advocates say. “You basically have to show that you, as an individual human being, are being targeted somehow by the Taliban. And that’s obviously a very difficult thing to establish — you know, unless the Taliban sends you a letter or something,” Bates said.
Matthew Bourke, a spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Homeland Security division that processes parole applications, said the agency has significantly expanded its processing capacity but that it has reached decisions on only 2,470 Afghan requests so far. Most were denied, he said.
“That’s more than $25 million that the Biden administration took from desperate Afghan refugees … to basically not process their humanitarian parole applications and to reject the overwhelming majority of the ones they do process,” Bates said.
Bourke said the figure was probably less than $25 million because some of the 45,000 parole applications were filed by the U.S. government on behalf of individual Afghans while others who’ve applied were granted fee waivers.
To Ukrainians who sought humanitarian parole before the creation of Uniting for Ukraine and who previously paid the processing fee, “we will refund fees paid in this circumstance,” the administration’s website says.
To Afghans and others, U.S. officials say humanitarian parole was never meant to bypass the traditional refugee program, which is the main pathway available to those seeking protection in the United States. Officials admitted 161 Afghans that way from October through March, according to the latest figures published by the State Department. It admitted 704 Ukrainian refugees during the same period.
“We have taken concrete steps to rebuild and enhance the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program to support increased admissions numbers across refugee populations,” a State Department spokesperson wrote in an email. “The Administration is committed to significantly increasing the number of refugees we resettle from Ukraine and around the world,” the official said.
Those with ties to U.S. organizations or individuals might be eligible for a “Priority 2” designation, established by the administration last summer in response to the volume of Afghans in need of refuge, though officials say it could take more than a year for people to be processed this way. Afghans who worked directly for the U.S. government might be eligible for Special Immigrant Visas, but that path to the United States also can take months or years.
Because there is no longer a U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan, none of these applications can be processed while individuals are there, officials said. And while Ukrainians have been largely welcomed into neighboring European countries where they do not need visas, the obstacles to leaving Afghanistan are formidable, advocates say.
“It’s a very difficult process right now,” said Shala Gafary, managing attorney for the Afghan Legal Assistance project at Human Rights First. Getting to neighboring Pakistan requires money and a visa — and making it past the Taliban, who rights groups have accused of targeting people associated with the United States.
“You can imagine a mom with a couple of small kids. How is she supposed to get to Pakistan when the Taliban is not allowing women to travel by themselves without being accompanied by a male guardian?” Gafary said.
Biden administration officials were quick to counter their critics by pointing to the mammoth evacuation effort undertaken as the United States exited Afghanistan. “We are proud to have welcomed more than 78,000 Afghans in the United States since August 2021,” the State Department spokesperson said. “Our commitment to resettling Afghans — particularly those who served on behalf of the U.S. effort in Afghanistan — remains steadfast.”
Advocates contend the administration has an obligation to rescue more, saying the U.S. exit from Afghanistan was so poorly planned and executed that thousands under grave threat from the Taliban couldn’t make it inside Kabul’s airport as the evacuation was underway. Others, including many Afghan military pilots, escaped but now are in the United States without their spouses or children.
Humanitarian parole applications have become the go-to move for those left behind because there weren’t any other viable options, advocates said. That the Biden administration created Uniting for Ukraine “for a population that has, let’s be honest, a lot of options … feels like a slap in the face,” Gafary said.