US expands eligibility for Afghans and others seeking entry on humanitarian grounds

The Biden administration quietly expanded admission rules for immigrants applying for humanitarian entry into the US amid mounting criticism over the rejection of thousands of applications from Afghans seeking refuge from the Taliban, internal government guidance and training materials obtained by CBS News show .

The policy changes, implemented internally this spring, relate to a decades-old legal authority called parole that would allow U.S. immigration officials to allow visa-less immigrants to enter the country if they have urgent humanitarian needs or if their coming a “considerable public benefit.”

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agency that oversees the legal immigration system, typically receives about 2,000 parole requests from immigrants abroad each year. But parole applications rose dramatically after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in August 2021.

Tens of thousands of Afghans, many of whom were unable to enter the Kabul airport in time to be evacuated by the US last summer, have been released on parole. These include Afghans who have assisted US troops, their relatives, former Afghan government officials, 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 more than 46,000 parole applications from Afghans abroad. But by June 2, it had reviewed fewer than 5,000 applications and rejected 93% of them, CBS News reported earlier this month. More than 40,000 Afghans’ parole requests remain unsolved.

Multiple USCIS denials reviewed by CBS News said Afghan applicants had failed to demonstrate that they were at risk of “serious targeted or individualized harm” or “imminent return to a country where the beneficiary would be harmed.”

The extremely high denials and backlog of unresolved cases drew scathing criticism from some Democratic lawmakers and refugee advocates, who accused US officials of relying on a narrow interpretation of parole to wrongly deny requests from desperate Afghans.

Proponents also juxtaposed the high denials with the Biden administration’s wide use of parole to admit other populations, including Ukrainians displaced by the Russian invasion of their homeland and more than 70,000 Afghans evacuated by the US last year. and resettled.

Internal USCIS guidelines obtained by CBS News show that the agency has extended its eligibility for humanitarian parole to those who can prove they are members of an “target group” that has dealt with “widespread, systematic or widespread” attacks. Members in a targeted group should be threatened with “serious harm,” including physical or psychological injury or death, the guidance says.

Before the amendments, humanitarian parole applicants were instructed to submit third-party evidence that specifically identified them as targets of serious harm.

The revised guidelines for USCIS arbitrators said this evidence “still remains the preferred evidence,” but expanded other forms of “strong evidence” to include state-of-the-country reports showing a group being targeted; proof that the applicant belongs to that group; and evidence that potential persecutors are aware or likely to learn of the applicant’s membership in said group.

“Isolated incidents of harm to other group members will generally not suffice,” the guidance said.

For applications from persons in third countries, the guidance instructs evaluators to consider an applicant’s lack of access to international protection programmes; risk of serious damage 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 arbitrators about the types of evidence we deem relevant when evaluating parole requests, based primarily on protection against individualized or targeted harm,” the agency said. “With the significant influx of new parole requests, primarily based on protection needs following the Afghan humanitarian crisis, USCIS has decided that a review of our policy was appropriate.”

Afghan refugees in Pakistan
Children walk past makeshift houses on a side street as Afghan refugees struggle to survive under dire conditions in Islamabad, Pakistan on May 29, 2022.

Muhammed Semih Ugurlu/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The policy changes being made by USCIS could benefit some of the tens of thousands of Afghans on parole, as well as prospective applicants. But immigration attorneys said the impact of the rules will depend on how the arbitrators enforce them and whether they lower the high bounce rate.

“On the face of it, it sounds like it could potentially be beneficial. We just have to see how it’s actually implemented and assessed,” said Karlyn Kurichety, the legal director at Al Otro Lado, a California-based advocacy group that has filed for parole. requests on behalf of Afghans.

In addition, USCIS has laid out other reasons why it has failed to process most Afghans’ parole requests and why the vast majority of cases have been rejected, including arguing that those seeking permanent settlement should take advantage of the U.S. refugee process, which can take a long time. year.

Responding earlier this month to concerns raised in December 2021 by Democratic Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Alice Lugo, DHS’s assistant secretary of legislative affairs, said a ninefold spike in parole requests has cut processing times by ” several months”.

“The main limiting factor for timely review of parole applications is that the number of receipts significantly exceeds available funds,” Lugo wrote in her June 14 letter, noting that USCIS has appointed 90 officials to review these cases.

Lugo also stressed that the “standard of proof for persons applying for parole is the same regardless of the beneficiary’s nationality or location.” But she noted that many Afghan parole applicants are still in Afghanistan, where they cannot undergo required face-to-face interviews with US officials.

“However, because the US Embassy in Afghanistan has suspended operations, including all consular processing, USCIS cannot complete the approval of a parole request while the beneficiary is in Afghanistan,” Lugo wrote in her letter, which was obtained by CBS News. .

Refugee advocates have urged USCIS to conduct conditional interviews remotely for Afghans, or to opt out of them, as has been done for displaced Ukrainians who have been released on parole in the US under a private sponsorship program ending April has been set up. They have also advocated a similar private sponsorship policy for Afghans.

Under the Uniting for Ukraine program, USCIS assesses sponsorship requests from US individuals to determine whether they have the financial resources 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 released on parole by airport officials.

Humanitarian requests submitted by Afghans and others typically require an application fee of $575, while sponsorship requests for the Uniting for Ukraine program are free. Unlike parole requests filed by Afghans, Uniting for Ukraine cases are processed electronically in a matter of weeks or even days.

DHS has denied having different standards for these populations, saying it is committed to helping displaced Ukrainians as well as high-risk Afghans. It has also argued that Afghans are seeking permanent resettlement, while Ukrainians need a temporary safe haven.

But critics disagree. Massachusetts Democrat Markey called the processing of Afghan parole requests “gloomy and discriminatory.”

“Thousands of Afghans have been denied humanitarian parole, and only a few dozen have been approved,” Markey told CBS News. “This is a moral crisis. The American people stand ready to welcome these families into our neighborhoods with open arms.”

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