The Defense Department has received about 60 requests from service members and department civilians to get their family members out of Afghanistan and legally into the United States, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Nov. 15, but none of them qualify for an immediate legal residency status.
The requests came through an inbox set up in early November. Over the course of the 20-year war in Afghanistan, many Afghan-born immigrants joined the U.S. military or became DoD civilians and contractors, while members of their family have remained in the country.
Information sent to that inbox is then passed onto the State Department, which is in charge of efforts to get any remaining U.S. citizens or Afghan allies out of the Taliban-controlled country.
“Thus far of the ones that have been studied and reviewed, they are not eligible for parole status,” Kirby said.
State is working with DoD, the Homeland Security Department, as well as advocacy groups and non-profits to identify people who want to leave the country and help coordinate their arrival in the United States, according to a State spokesman.
But details aren’t available on what kind of special consideration, if any, these family members might have in the evacuation and immigration process, or who the program is designed to benefit.
“We are not going to detail the specifics of our coordination and operations at this time,” a State spokesman told Military Times on Friday, when asked whether that coordination involved physical extraction from Afghanistan or assistance for those who are able to escape on their own.
In general, spouses and children of U.S. citizens are eligible to come to the U.S. under these circumstances, though State would not say whether that means physical transportation, priority in processing or any other benefit.
They do get priority for State-coordinated flights out of the country, according to someone familiar with the process, along with American citizens and legal permanent residents, as well as those who are in the Special Immigrant Visa pipeline.
In order to make that happen, they need to have proper documentation, including passports.
Neither DoD nor State were able to say what precisely is preventing family members from receiving temporary legal status, or whether the barriers to it are temporary, provided they can get their paperwork in order.
A DHS spokesman did not return a request for information about what would qualify these Afghan family members for parole, a temporary legal status that allows immigrants to stay in the U.S. while their cases are adjudicated.
In this case, family members might qualify for a type of parole granted because of “humanitarian or significant public benefit,” which is awarded on a case by case basis, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website.
The burden of proof is on the applicant to prove “whether or not the circumstances are pressing,” which includes, ”the effect of the circumstances on the individual’s welfare and wellbeing; and the degree of suffering that may result if parole is not authorized.”
So these family members would have to prove that they are in imminent, overwhelming danger by staying in Afghanistan, presumably above and beyond any danger the entire population of Afghanistan faces under Taliban rule.
The denials don’t mean all is lost for these family members. There are options through the State Department, including asylum status through the the U.S. Refugee Admissions Programs for Afghans who were employed by the U.S. government or U.S-based media organizations.
“We continue to receive and process submissions for Afghans who may be eligible for referral to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Programs through a P1 or P2 referral,” the spokespersons said. “We will continue to support Afghans in as many ways as we can by providing humanitarian assistance in partnership with the international community.”
The challenge is that the process can take between a year to 18 months to complete, and applicants have to leave Afghanistan to start the process.
“We recognize that it is currently extremely difficult for Afghans to obtain a passport or a visa to a third country or find a way to enter a third country, and like many refugees, may face significant challenges fleeing to safety,” the spokesperson said, adding, “We continue to call for safe passage for all those who wish to leave Afghanistan, and we have been very public about advocacy to other countries to respect the principle of non-refoulement and to allow entry for Afghans seeking protection. There are a number of countries that have been very generous in supporting relocated Afghans, with which we have been coordinating.”
Those countries include neighboring Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Iran.
As of Nov. 17, roughly 45,000 of the 80,000 Afghans evacuated from Kabul during August are still being housed at military installations as they finish screenings and wait for longer-term housing assignments.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.