(Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the latest number of volunteer attorneys at the Oklahoma Afghan Legal Network and the network’s hosting of informational sessions for Afghan evacuees.)
Feroz Bashari once served as U.S. Sen. John McCain’s personal interpreter in Afghanistan. Now, he lives on the fourth floor of an Oklahoma City hotel with his wife, Maria, and their five children.
Bashari has been there since mid-February looking for jobs, enrolling his children in school and even being honored at the State Capitol.
On behalf of 1,806 Afghan evacuees in Oklahoma, the 40-year-old Bashari received a citation of welcome on Muslim Day at The Capitol in March. The honor was bestowed by State Rep. Mauree Turner, the only Muslim among Oklahoma’s 149 state legislators.
Naqib Husseinyar, his mother and 19-year-old sister moved out of their OKC hotel room in December. Fresh out of high school with no ties to the Afghan or American governments, Husseinyar works at a nearby Chick-fil-A with his sister while their mom works at a child daycare center.
Bashari and Husseinyar are among the 74,000 Afghan evacuees airlifted from Kabul and brought to the United States. Their hopes of building a new life here, however, hinge in part on their former lives. And with the clock ticking on their immigration status, a scarcity of affordable legal aid complicates their future.
Bashari’s work as a media analyst for the U.S. Military Command and diplomatic translator at the U.S. Embassy qualifies him for a Special Immigrant Visa, which grants permanent residence to those who help the U.S. government abroad. That process typically takes years to complete.
“It’s unclear, based on the chaos of the evacuation, whether these folks even understand or whether anyone has even told them this,” said Adam Bates, a policy counsel at the International Refugee Assistance Project headquartered in New York City.
More than half of Afghan evacuees applied for a Special Immigrant Visa before leaving Kabul, according to a Department of Homeland Security report to Congress.
Husseinyar was not among them. He was on a family vacation north of Kabul when the Taliban took over. Like all those swept up in the hastily planned evacuation of Kabul last August, Husseinyar was assigned a quick, legal and emergency method of entering the country called humanitarian parole. That designation provides up to two years of legal protection during which they can apply for employment authorization and send their children to school.
It does not provide a path to permanent residence, meaning many Afghan evacuees must adjust their immigration status before 2025 or risk being sent back to a place where they risk being hanged for associating with Americans.
“The concern is 50,000 plus Afghans having to go through asylum after everything else they’ve been through,” Bates said.
Asylum seekers must show they need protection from persecution in their home country based on experience or a well-founded fear stemming from their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a social group. The process usually starts with the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, which has in-take centers around the world. They wait months, sometimes years, to legally enter the U.S., where they have one year to apply for residency.
For Afghan evacuees, however, that asylum process must happen here, without the structure of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, and depends on the assistance of local attorneys.
A Cloud of Legal Uncertainty
Husseinyar, 20, said he has been promised an attorney to help his family apply for asylum and has yet to hear from one. Bashari said the immigration status he earned in Afghanistan provides little comfort now.
“I worked for the Americans and based on the law I have rights to get settled in this country,” Bashari said, “It should be at the final stage now.”
Their resettlement in Oklahoma City could be a factor in the delays.
The primary source of free legal aid for Afghan evacuees locally is the Oklahoma City Afghan Legal Network, which consists of a legal coordinator, three immigration attorneys and about a dozen potential volunteers with minimal immigration experience who have expressed interest in helping.
“We have a handful of volunteers, but so far, no (additional) immigration attorneys,” said Breanna Cary, legal director for the network. “I would like the OKC Afghan community to know we are working on it and we will give it everything we have. But it’s taking some time because there are so many people.
Tara Jordan De Lara, the network’s Operations Director and one of the three immigration attorneys, said the volunteers are being forwarded resources meant to equip them with the knowledge to best help Afghan evacuees and some have already been assigned cases. The network is also in the process of hiring full-time translators, as funding allows.
By the end of April, all Afghan evacuees in Oklahoma City had been screened, said Jordan De Lara. The network’s current focus is on asylum cases, but it is holding legal information sessions for any Afghan evacuees on the first Saturday of every month on Zoom. She said anyone interested in a link should reach out to the Oklahoma City Afghan Legal Network.
Project 850, named for the number of Afghans who arrived in Tulsa, is providing legal services there. The project operates out of the University of Tulsa’s Boesche Legal Clinic and provides screening to determine if an evacuee should apply for asylum or a Special Immigrant Visa.
Matt Flynn, the Project 850 fellow, anticipates all evacuees in Tulsa being screened by May 12. Once that happens, they are referred to a growing network of volunteer — mostly corporate — attorneys.
“So far, we have 71 attorneys that have made a commitment to take on 111 asylum cases,” said Kojo Asamoa-Caesar, pro bono legal coordinator for Afghan Placement Assistance Program, an arm of Catholic Charities of Eastern Oklahoma.
Jessi Riesenberg, senior director of development and outreach at Catholic Charities in Oklahoma City, said it is “probably very, very likely” Afghan evacuees in Oklahoma City will have to find and pay for their own attorneys.
“There just are not enough attorneys that do this kind of work that aren’t private attorneys,” she said, explaining that evacuees were given cash payments by the federal government upon arrival and many of them have been matched with sponsors and employment opportunities.
Bashari and Husseinyar say they have both been screened and can not afford a private attorney.
“We’ve been waiting five months now and nothing has happened,” Husseinyar said. “They said ‘ you either wait for us or you can get your own attorney.’ ”
That could cost up to $10,000, he said.
“I don’t have money to get an attorney or lawyer,” Bashari said. “I am here now. I don’t plan to go back home and I can’t go back.”
Lionel Ramos is a Report for America corps member who covers race and equity issues for Oklahoma Watch. Contact him at 405-905-9953 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @LionelRamos_.