At Every Step, Afghans Coming to America Encounter Stumbling Blocks

The New York Times

U.S. officials concede that the system was unprepared.

When he was approved for a special visa to immigrate to the United States, Arian Ali thought his luck was about to change. The Taliban had taken over Afghanistan, but he had a way out.

Instead, he remains in limbo.

Mr. Ali, 43, qualified for the visa by working with the U.S. government in a series of jobs during the 20-year war and had waited since 2014 for approval. That finally happened in October, more than a month after the Biden administration left Afghanistan in a dramatic evacuation as the Taliban seized control of Kabul, the capital.

The visa could be picked up at any American embassy. But the one in Kabul had shut down and, without the visa in hand, he was unable to enter any of the countries he deemed safe enough to visit that had open U.S. consular offices.

The day before Thanksgiving, immigration lawyers managed to get Mr. Ali and his family on an American government charter flight to a U.S. military base outside Doha, Qatar. Now he is back to waiting — for word on how long he will be there, and when he will get the visa he needs stamped in his passport.

“Our life became a joke,” Mr. Ali, who agreed to be identified only by a nickname to protect family still in Afghanistan, said in a text message this week from a refugee camp at Al Udeid Air Base.

“Taliban kill and U.S. government too slow and reluctant to help,” he said.

More than 74,500 Afghans have been given permission to live in the United States, at least temporarily, in the four months since the return of Taliban rule. Though they are no longer in immediate danger, many have had trouble navigating an immigration system that U.S. officials concede was wholly unprepared to help them.

Thousands have stayed in squalid camps. Others have been threatened by security forces as they transit neighboring countries. Even those who have made it to the United States worry about how they will afford housing and food.

In interviews, more than a half-dozen Afghans in various stages of immigrating to the United States expressed profound gratitude for the help they received in leaving Afghanistan. But they also shared their frustration — echoed by immigration advocates, members of Congress and even Biden administration officials — with a process that has provided little clarity on when the United States will deliver on its promise to protect those who risked their lives to support the American government.

“There are lots of people who are trying to find that lucky break that will get them through a door, across the border, on an airplane, get a visa, whatever they need to just get out of the country and try to process themselves into some kind of new reality,” said James B. Cunningham, who served as ambassador to Afghanistan from 2012 to 2014.

“Unfortunately, that’s going to continue for a long time,” he said.

Biden administration officials say they are trying to ease the passage. But they have struggled with what Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken described last month as a situation that “is in so many ways a complicated story that I’m not sure the American people fully understood.”

Additionally, Congress and the White House have failed to resolve whether to give permanent legal status to tens of thousands of Afghans who were evacuated to the United States. That means they could, in theory, be deported in as little as two years.

“The U.S. military and diplomatic presence in Afghanistan may have ended in August,” said Sunil Varghese, the policy director for the International Refugee Assistance Project, “but U.S. government’s obligation did not.”

Mr. F., who worked with the U.S. government for years, is living in Tajikistan on a short-term visa that expires every month, with no guarantee that it will be renewed.
Credit…Greg Kahn for The New York Times

With the Taliban back in power, a 36-year-old man who had also worked with the U.S. government knew he had to get his family out of Afghanistan.

J.F., who agreed to be identified only by his initials for protection, spent years helping the U.S. Treasury Department prosecute money laundering and terrorism financing cases, including against the Taliban. His mother worked for the now-defunct Ministry of Women’s Affairs, counseling victims of domestic violence.

He and his family hid in Kabul for weeks in October, then fled to neighboring Iran. From there, and with a legal entry visa, they flew to Dushanbe, the Tajik capital. With a prominent Afghan diaspora on the outskirts of the city, it seemed like the safest place to be while he applied for what is known as “humanitarian parole” to the United States — given that the process must be completed in a country that has a functioning U.S. embassy. Parole status allows Afghan refugees to live in the United States for a fixed period, in most cases two years.

But six days after they arrived in Dushanbe in early November, security guards knocked on the door of the family’s apartment and took their passports. When he went to the agents’ office the next day, they refused to return the documents and said the family would be sent back to Afghanistan.

Were that to happen, Mr. F. said, the Taliban “will not let us live.”

Requests for help from a group of Americans who worked with Mr. F. in Kabul have bounced between Congress, the State Department, Treasury and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services without resolution — or even much of an explanation.

“Treasury’s hands are pretty much tied,” a Treasury official said in a Nov. 5 email on the matter that was shared with The New York Times.

“Our office will be happy to assist the family once U.S.C.I.S. approves their parole request,” the U.S. Embassy in Dushanbe responded in a Nov. 11 email.

In an email dated Nov. 12, an aide to Senator Todd Young, Republican of Indiana, also suggested that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services needed to move first but noted that processing the requests would “likely take several months.”

Only about 135 of the 28,000 applications from Afghans seeking humanitarian parole have been approved since July 1, according to the agency, which usually receives fewer than 2,000 applications from around the world each year.

A spokeswoman at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services would not verify Mr. F’s case, citing privacy concerns, but said in a statement that the agency was prepared to welcome more Afghans over the coming months. The agency has increased the number of agents who process the humanitarian parole applications from at least 10 in August to about 50, the spokeswoman said on Sunday.

Mr. F. managed to retrieve his family’s passports but is living in Dushanbe on a short-term visa that expires every month, with no guarantee that it will be renewed.

If it is not, he and his family will be deported.

“I didn’t expect to get it easily,” he said of approval to come to the United States, “but it’s too difficult.”

One of his former colleagues, John Kimbler, the chief executive of California-based Paradigm Applications, is mystified by the web of bureaucracy.

“He’s safer now than he was before, but it seems like there should be a way to move him on to secure that safety,” Mr. Kimbler said.

Mursal Nazar applied for a special immigrant visa last year as the Taliban seized territory across Afghanistan and the U.S. military prepared to leave.
Credit…Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

Mursal Nazar considered herself fortunate. She was evacuated to the camp at Al Udeid Air Base on a U.S. military flight on Aug. 25 — one day before an Islamic State suicide bomber killed scores of Afghans and 13 American troops at the same gate where she had been waiting to be let into the Kabul airport.

But the three-hour flight turned into a 11-hour ordeal as the hundreds of passengers, packed tightly in the sweltering cabin, underwent security and safety checks after they landed.

At the time, the camp was so unprepared for the more than 60,000 Afghans who would transit through Qatar that even the Pentagon reported “some terrible sanitation conditions” there.

“We didn’t have proper toilets to use,” said Ms. Nazar, 31. “We didn’t have places to go and take a shower and places for women, who need privacy, to go and change their clothes. They put men and women sleeping under the same tent — different kinds of people, from different cultures and different beliefs. That was a problem for us.”

After a 10-day wait, Ms. Nazar and her husband left for the United States.

Officials said conditions had vastly improved at Al Udeid, which continues to house thousands of Afghans on their way to the United States.

During the evacuation, a dozen overseas transit hubs, or “lily pads,” housed thousands of Afghans. But concerns about a long-term strain on Pentagon resources and readiness have led to the closure of all but three of the sites: Al Udeid, one in Kosovo and a vast field of tents known as Humanitarian City in the United Arab Emirates. Officials said there were at least 2,900 Afghans — the number frequently changes — at the three bases waiting to come to the United States.

The host governments have also raised concerns about allowing in thousands of people who American officials have said may not have been fully vetted before they were flown out of Afghanistan.

Qatar recently banned Afghans who don’t have passports or other government-approved credentials, though there may be exceptions, Deputy Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, the country’s top diplomat, said in Washington last month.

For security reasons, “it’s very important to make sure that the right people are evacuated,” he said.

Mr. Ali is among at least 28,000 Afghans who have been identified as qualifying for the special immigrant visa because of their work for the U.S. government. The State Department says it has issued 8,200 of the visas since last January, and hopes to bring out at least 1,000 more from Afghanistan each month through next September, although that goal may be especially difficult to reach in the winter and with Kabul’s airport in disarray.

But a yearslong delay in processing the visas has enraged military veterans and others who served in Afghanistan, and become a rare source of unity within a Congress that has been divided to the point of paralysis on other aspects of immigration.

“The United States pledged to support those who served our mission in Afghanistan,” Senators Jim Risch of Idaho, James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma and Rob Portman of Ohio, all Republicans, wrote in an Oct. 21 letter to demand an investigation into the delays. “Failing to do so would lead allies and adversaries alike to call into question our reliability and credibility as a partner in future conflicts.”

Mr. Blinken has noted that the State Department, which issues the visas after they have been vetted by the Homeland Security Department, inherited a backlog of 17,000 applications when President Biden took office in January. Consular officers were processing about 100 special immigrant visas each week last winter but about 1,000 as Mr. Biden’s deadline for ending the war approached in August.

Mr. Ali was eligible for a visa through his work since 2003 for the U.S. Agency for International Development, the United Nations, advocacy groups and the fledgling Afghan government.

“I’m proud of the work I did with the United States,” he said. “But I don’t understand how the U.S. government could abandon its allies.”

Hamid Wahidy and his family stayed at a camp at Quantico, Va., for around 40 days before moving into a small Airbnb in San Diego.
Credit…Ariana Drehsler for The New York Times

Ms. Nazar applied for a special immigrant visa last year as the Taliban seized territory across Afghanistan and the U.S. military prepared to leave. It had not been approved by the time she was evacuated to the camp in Qatar in August, however, and she entered the United States on humanitarian parole that required her to live on a National Guard base in Indiana as she waited for refugee resettlement officials to take her case.

She arrived at Camp Atterbury, south of Indianapolis, before dawn on Sept. 6, and was struck by the expanse of green fields and fresh air. “I was relieved that finally I was somewhere I can be relaxed,” she said.

It did not last long. The mess halls ran out of food in the early days. Base officials struggled to track the Afghans; as recently as mid-November, a military public affairs officer insisted that Ms. Nazar had already left Camp Atterbury even though she had not.

Worst of all was the nagging anxiety of when they might move them off base and into homes.

“When we asked the same question, like, ‘How long is it going to take? On what basis are you going let these families to be resettled from here?’ they say, ‘We don’t have any answer for your questions — you just have to wait for your turn, and whenever it comes, we will call you,” Ms. Nazar said last month.

Her turn finally came Thanksgiving week, when she moved into a temporary apartment in Bayonne, N.J. “Things are going well,” she said recently, although she is waiting for work authorization and other documents.

Resettlement agencies have helped place around 38,000 Afghans in American communities since August.

Tens of thousands of Afghans are still waiting on seven military bases in the United States. But a refugee camp at Fort Lee, Va., was shuttered on Nov. 17, and officials said one in Quantico, Va., would likely be next.

“The most important thing we can do is put people on the path to self-sufficiency as quickly as we can,” Jack Markell, the former governor of Delaware and the coordinator of Operation Allies Welcome, the White House resettlement process for evacuated Afghans, said in an interview last month.

As many as 4,000 Afghans are moved from the camps and resettled each week, and “this is an effort that will continue,” Mr. Markell said.

He acknowledged Afghans’ frustration, and said officials have tried to answer more of their questions in recent weeks. “If we were in their shoes, we’d want the same thing,” Mr. Markell said. “We’d all want to know, as quickly as possible, where we’re going to be building our new lives.”

Refugee agencies have been overwhelmed with caring for Afghan families who are moved into American communities. A family of 10, including a newborn baby, had no money and no benefits when they were settled outside Washington D.C. and depended on grocery deliveries from the Muslim Association of Virginia. In Houston, some Afghans have been placed in crime-ridden neighborhoods and are living in apartments with dilapidated toilets or black mold in bathrooms, and are salvaging supplies from rubbish heaps or borrowing from neighbors.

“There are pregnant women who have slept on hard floors with no blankets, no mattress,” said Shekeba Morrad, an Afghan-American community organizer in Washington D.C. and Northern Virginia, who works with a nationwide group trying to monitor the situation of the newly arrived Afghans.

Hamid Wahidy, 34, and his family made it to the camp at Quantico via a route that first took them to Qatar, Germany and Dulles International Airport outside Washington. They stayed at the camp for 40 days before moving into a small Airbnb in San Diego. The first month there was a blur of bureaucratic shuffling to receive his Social Security card, which he needed to open a bank account, obtain a driver’s license, apply for a job and enroll his kids in school.

A few weeks later, he moved into a larger home. It cost him $3,400 — for one month’s rent and a security deposit — of the $5,000 the family received from a resettlement agency. He did not immediately receive food stamps and other benefits that he had expected under a spending bill that Congress passed in September that included $6.3 billion in expanded assistance to the arriving Afghans.

The legislation also did not include an expedited process for legal residency for Mr. Wahidy and other Afghans. Without it, immigration advocates say, they could eventually be deported.

Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, noted that the Afghan refugees had already undergone background checks and other security screening, and suggested they could fill job vacancies created by the pandemic.

“This is not only the right thing to do — it will enrich our communities and strengthen our economy,” said Ms. Klobuchar, who is among those pushing for the Afghans to be given “a clear path to remain here as lawful permanent residents.”

Mr. Wahidy described his family’s journey out of Kabul in August — including crawling through a fetid canal to catch the attention of an American soldier standing guard at the airport — as “very difficult.”

In San Diego, he has relied on donations. He is still trying to accept that his life will never be what it was in Afghanistan before the Taliban took over — “a good life in our own country,” he said wistfully.

“We had a job there, we could handle our family, our normal life,” Mr. Wahidy said, exhaling deeply. “But here, it is 180 degrees change.”

“It’s not clear, our future,” he said. “What will happen to us, I don’t know.”

Alissa J. Rubin contributed reporting.

Lara Jakes is a diplomatic correspondent based in the Washington bureau of The New York Times. Over the past two decades, Ms. Jakes has reported and edited from more than 40 countries and covered war and sectarian fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, the West Bank and Northern Ireland.

At Every Step, Afghans Coming to America Encounter Stumbling Blocks