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The Fall of Afghanistan: Visa Options for Those Who Can Depart *

The most recent fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban is both stunning in speed and devastating for the tens of thousands who supported the U.S. mission over the last two decades. In a span of just 10 days, Afghans saw their hopes and dreams crumble. With many people stuck at the airport and others sheltering in place, the international community — the U.S. government, relief organizations, and immigration attorneys, among many others — have mobilized whatever support they can to Afghans who seek to escape and to resettle in the United States.

Legally, Afghans who seek to enter the United States can do so on immigrant visas, including the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV), P1 or P2 (see below) or humanitarian parole. The SIV program allows Afghans who work or worked “by or on behalf of the U.S. government in Afghanistan,” as well as family members, to qualify for visas and lawful permanent resident status in the U.S. To be eligible for an SIV, an Afghan national must have been employed for a minimum of two years by the U.S. government or the International Security Assistance Force, and the applicant must prove “faithful and valuable service” through a recommendation letter from a supervisor. Further, the applicants must provide evidence of continuing serious threat because of their service. (Before the current crises, DHS reported that it was taking the agency 996 calendar days — almost three years — to process SIV applicants as a result of bureaucratic red-tape for those eligible, such as securing proof of time-in-service and relevant documentation. As of early August, more than 18,000 Afghans were currently awaiting decisions on their SIV applications at the Embassy in Kabul.)

Under the U.S. Refugee Admission Program (USRAP), eligibility has been expanded according to two separate priorities (P1 or P2). First, Afghans such as those under especially severe threats — including women and girls, human rights defenders, journalists, and other civil society actors — can be P1-eligible if the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), a U.S. embassy, or NGO refers an applicant to USRAP. Secondly, those who do not qualify for an SIV can become P2-eligibile if they worked for contractors (and/or the broader Mission Resolute Support), a U.S. government funded program, or a U.S. based media or NGO organization. According to the estimates, Afghans who qualify for either of these program priorities number in the tens of thousands.

Humanitarian parole is another mechanism available to Afghans; it permits a person to be paroled into the United States for humanitarian purposes. Such applicants, however, normally must apply for a travel document (Form I-131), which must be issued in order for the person to board a commercial flight and then enter the United States. The rules regarding obtaining humanitarian parole in advance are changing by the day and it appears that some Afghans who are in transit already will be “port” paroled without applying first for humanitarian parole if they can get on a U.S. evacuation flight. Afghans with approved I-130s but who have not yet cleared the immigrant visa process also will be paroled in by CBP.

The Biden Administration has secured agreements with more than two dozen countries to help serve as transit points or other relocation points for people who are getting out of Afghanistan so that DOS can complete visa processing and security checks. This hopefully will alleviate some of the bottlenecks in the system. But the chaos remains: not only has the airport in Kabul been stormed by panicked Afghans, but others cannot get to Kabul and its airport, the last operational airport in the country.

At the very least, we have a moral obligation to fully and unequivocally protect our Afghan partners. This should include all the thousands of applicants who supported our mission in their home provinces but have been unable to reach Kabul. President Biden must abide by his statement to these Afghan nationals when he stated “we will stand with you just as you stood with us.” We cannot walk away from this tragedy.

*  reprinted with permission from Haynes Novick Immigration Update, Sept. 2021

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