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Afghans subject to stricter rules than Ukrainian refugees, advocates say

Thousands of Afghans have been rejected, and they have to prove vaccination status and pay $575 to apply, unlike Ukrainians. The “disparity couldn’t be more jarring,” one advocate said.
Families evacuated from Kabul walk through the airport
Families evacuated from Kabul walk through Washington Dulles International Airport in Chantilly, Va., on Aug. 31.Gemunu Amarasinghe / AP file

Afghans trying to enter the U.S. to escape Taliban rule are subject to stricter requirements than Ukrainians trying to flee the Russian invasion of their country, and thousands of Afghans — even some threatened by the Taliban — have been rejected, refugee advocates say. 

“There are clearly two refugee systems — one for Ukrainians and one for Afghans,” said Matt Zeller, an adviser to Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “Afghans are our longest wartime ally ever — you’d think we’d want to do right by them.”

The Biden administration rejects the criticism, arguing that the U.S. has brought in tens of thousands of Afghans since the U.S. military withdrew from Afghanistan last year and that it continues to work to help Afghans come to America.

“We’ve welcomed more than 78,000 Afghans to the United States since August of 2021 and we‘re committed to continuing to resettle Afghans, and ultimately that is the clear indication that there is no double standard here in terms of our steadfast treatment [of] our Afghan allies and [of] those Ukrainians in need,” said an administration official who was not authorized to speak on the record.

Unlike Afghans trying to secure entry to the U.S. on humanitarian grounds, Ukrainians don’t have to pay a $575 administrative fee, don’t need to show proof of vaccination and don’t need to have an in-person consular interview with a U.S. representative, according to refugee organizations and U.S. government statements.

“The administration may want to think it’s sufficient to do the bare minimum to save our Afghan allies, while doing what’s necessary for Ukrainian refugees, but the disparity couldn’t be more jarring,” said Chris Purdy, director of Veterans for American Ideals and Outreach at Human Rights First, an independent advocacy group.

“While many (Afghans) were brought here out of desperation, many thousands more have been left behind and are still under direct threat from the Taliban," Purdy said. "Over the last eight months, we have been begging the administration for the exact same program that they’re now giving Ukrainians."

The administrative fee is a large amount of money for many Afghans, and “it’s almost impossible to satisfy that requirement,” said Adam Bates, a policy counsel at the International Refugee Assistance Project. The median annual per capita income in Afghanistan is about $400.

Afghans can apply to get the fee waived, but it’s not clear how frequently the request is granted.

Refugee advocates also argue the U.S. has a special obligation to Afghans, given the 20-year U.S. war effort and that there are no friendly U.S. allies on the country’s border that are ready or willing to absorb large numbers of refugees.

After the large-scale evacuation of Afghans that accompanied the withdrawal of U.S. troops in August 2021, thousands of Afghans who were not able to secure a flight out in the chaos at Kabul airport applied to enter the U.S. under an obscure immigration program known as humanitarian parole. The program allows temporary entry to the U.S. on humanitarian grounds but no path to permanent legal residence.

Afghans and the immigration lawyers helping them saw humanitarian parole as a potential alternative route to getting to the U.S. instead of applying for refugee status in a third country, a process that can take years and drain the meager savings of the applicant.

But Afghans applying for parole are facing long delays, and many applications are being rejected. Since July, out of about 45,000 applications from Afghans for humanitarian parole, 2,200 have been denied and only 270 have been conditionally approved, according to Matthew Bourke, spokesperson for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

By contrast, more than 4,000 Ukrainians were granted humanitarian parole in February and March, according to U.S. government data.

In reviewing Afghan applications for parole, U.S. authorities consider “the specific facts of each case to determine if there is a distinct, well-documented reason to approve humanitarian parole for an individual,” Bourke said.

Advocates helping Afghan applicants say U.S. authorities are asking for extensive evidence that an applicant faces a specific and imminent danger, and some say U.S. officials appear to have tightened the criteria over the past several months. Afghans who received threatening letters from the Taliban, who were beaten by the Taliban and who belong to a vulnerable group targeted by the Taliban have had their applications rejected by U.S. authorities as inadequate, refugee advocates said.

When asked about a possible policy change, USCIS declined to comment.

To help Ukrainians forced from their homes by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Biden administration recently launched a program that allows Ukrainians to settle temporarily in the U.S. if an American citizen sponsors them and demonstrates they have the means to financially support them. Under the program, Uniting for Ukraine, the Ukrainians receive humanitarian parole, allowing them to stay in the U.S. for up to two years.

The Biden administration sees the comparison between the program designed for Ukrainians and Afghans applying for humanitarian parole as misleading, the administration official said. 

The official said the more apt comparison for Uniting for Ukraine is Operation Allies Welcome, which helped resettle tens of thousands of Afghans in the U.S.

In that instance, Afghans did not have to go through the standard application process for humanitarian parole and the U.S. government granted them parole after evacuating them from Afghanistan to third countries to complete the screening and vetting process.

Bates, with the International Refugee Assistance Project, said that there is a clear difference in how Afghans and Ukrainians are being treated and that advocacy groups have been asking for a more flexible approach for Afghans.

“It’s not even a year apart from these separate instances. I don’t know if it can get any more obvious that there’s a problem here,” Bates said.

“It’s impossible not to see the echoes of bigotry and xenophobia that have informed U.S. immigration policy,” he said.

The administration official vehemently rejected the idea that discrimination or prejudice based on religion or nationality played any role in how Afghans were being treated.

African and Caribbean immigrant advocates also have questioned how Black refugees are treated by U.S. authorities compared to Ukrainians and have accused the federal government of a double standard. 

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has previously denied accusations that the government’s treatment of migrants at the U.S. southern border represents a double standard. U.S. authorities have allowed in thousands of Ukrainians at the southern border, and Mayorkas directed border officials in March to consider exempting Ukrainians from the Trump-era policy known as Title 42.

Title 42, a public health order used after the outbreak of the Covid pandemic, lets U.S. border authorities turn back migrants without giving them a chance to apply for asylum.

Apart from Afghans appealing for entry to the U.S. under the humanitarian parole provision, there are also tens of thousands of Afghans who worked for U.S. troops who are trying to resettle to the U.S. under a special U.S. visa program set up over a decade ago. The U.S. evacuated only about 3 percent of the Afghans who applied for the special immigrant visas, leaving behind an estimated 78,000 former interpreters and others who were employed by the U.S. government, according to a recent report by the nonprofit Association of Wartime Allies.