When Hossain Ahmadi and Zahra Eyvazi arrived in Oklahoma in December, they kept hearing from fellow Afghans about the free help available to them. Cash stipends. Housing and food assistance. English lessons. Government health care. Free legal services.
“It all sounded too good to be true,” Eyvazi said.
She was right. The people they’d been hearing from had humanitarian parole.
The parole status applied to Afghans who were brought into the U.S. as part of Operation Allies Welcome, a federally sponsored mass exodus out of Afghanistan following the 2021 Taliban takeover. Ahmadi and Eyvazi didn’t qualify for the same status.
Four times that fall, Ahmadi and Eyvazi joined the thousands of hopeful evacuees crowding in front of Kabul’s international airport, but they couldn’t make it onto the last plane out.
“We could have been on those airplanes,” Ahmadi said. “But everyone wanted that, and the Taliban guarded the streets.”
As Hazaras, a minority ethnicity in Afghanistan, and educated employees of the country’s former government, the couple said they feared persecution from the Taliban and decided to find another way to flee Kabul. They applied to various programs at universities meant to help scholars flee conflict zones while studying abroad.
“We started applying for different programs, anything we could to get out. Finally, in October 2021, Zahra was accepted by Oklahoma University,” Ahmadi said.
A year later, after a long drive to Islamabad, Pakistan, and a few restless nights in a hotel there, they made it to their U.S. embassy appointment, obtained student visas and, as the newest additions to the University of Oklahoma’s Scholars-at-Risk program, were flown by the school’s international studies faculty to Oklahoma. That means they aren’t qualified for the same resettlement benefits, immigration protections and work permissions as their 1,850 Afghan counterparts who landed in the state with humanitarian parole.
While others in Oklahoma’s Afghan community qualify for a two-year extension to their parole status, Ahmadi and Eyvazi are racing to file for asylum before their student visas expire at the end of this year.
They face a long, expensive process. The federal asylum backlog is expected to surpass 1 million claims by 2024. Wait times for approval are nearly a decade. Local immigration lawyers said asylum services can cost between $8,000 and $15,000, and legislation meant to provide federal relief for Afghans remains stalled in Congress.
Nonprofits, and their lawyers charged with providing legal support for paroled Afghans in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, recognize there are people such as Ahmadi and Eyvazi, who are falling through immigration assistance and other resource gaps. Strict guidelines limiting who they can serve with federally appropriated money and a lack of capacity to fully engage with everyone who needs their help are barriers to addressing the issue, they said.
“We Don’t Have That Kind of Money”
Alex Gavern is an attorney and the legal director for the YWCA in Tulsa, one of the nonprofits in the city responsible for the long-term monitoring of Afghan parolee immigration cases. He said Afghan families without humanitarian parole status have slipped through the holes in immigration policy.
“We worry about those families,” Gavern said. “But the money we get from ASA, or the Afghanistan Supplemental Appropriations Act, is restricted to only that parolee group.”
He said the federal money used to resettle refugees under normal circumstances is reserved for people who followed the normal process of applying for refugee status while living in another country, usually in a refugee camp. It is not for those with temporary visas.
People in situations like Ahmadi and Eyvazi, regardless of their nationality, are better off applying for asylum or Temporary Protected Status, if they qualify, Gavern said.
That is the couple’s plan. But there’s one problem: money.
“Our goal is to have a pending asylum application first, then to study, find a job in our fields and save money,” Ahmadi said.
Ahmadi was an English professor and administrative assistant at the energy services authority in Kabul. Eyvazi worked there too as a geographic information officer, and was studying for an advanced degree in urban development. Today, both are studying for higher degrees in their respective fields at OU.
Ideally, they would have a pending asylum case and a steady income before their visas expire and Eyvazi gives birth to their son in the next two months, Ahmadi said. He knows that isn’t realistic. The couple lives on just more than $2,000 per month between a stipend Eyvazi gets for the Scholars-at-Risk Program and Ahmadi’s research assistant allowance.
Rent, utilities, internet and groceries cost the couple about $1,500 per month. Their immigration expenses, however, are significantly greater than their income.
They paid a private attorney $2,000 in early October to have their asylum claim filed, Ahmadi said.
“That’s just for writing and editing the statement, and filing the application,” Ahmadi said.
He said he expects the cost to be much greater by the time the process is over. Most Afghans who qualified for parole status paid nothing to have their claims filed.
“We don’t have that kind of money,” Ahmadi said. “So we borrowed from friends we’ve made at the university and have been paying them back.”
Gavern said the timing of the couple’s application is crucial.
In order to work with a student visa, Ahmadi obtained a work permit from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. If the asylum claim the couple filed is recognized by the federal agency before their student visas expire, Ahmadi’s work permission will roll over, Gavern said. If not, Ahmadi’s case will have to be pending for 150 days before he can apply for work permissions again.
The couple still hasn’t received a notice of receipt from the federal government or the attorney they paid.
“They don’t get priority processing like parolees do, either,” Gavern said.
In July, federal officials reported a backlog of about 842,000 pending asylum cases and a decade-long processing time.
The couple will also apply for Temporary Protected Status, an immigration designation that safeguards people from select countries, including Afghanistan. But that process is slow. Many parolees who applied starting March 2022, when it became an option for Afghans, are still waiting for acceptance into that program, Gavern said.
Can’t Wait For Congress
The bipartisan Afghan Adjustment Act, which would enable Afghans who supported the U.S. mission in their country to obtain permanent residency, is pending in Senate and House judiciary committees in Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, immigration lawyers working with parolees on the ground in Oklahoma’s major metros said they are jaded by the yet-unfulfilled promises made by Congress.
“It’s too little too late for most of the people we are tasked with helping,” said Tara Jordan De Lara, an immigration attorney and the operations director at the Afghan Legal Network, a temporary nonprofit providing immigration legal services to Afghans resettled in Oklahoma City.
Matt Flynn, the Project 850 fellow at Tulsa University’s Legal Clinic who works with nonprofits and volunteers to provide the same services for Afghans in Tulsa, said the act would be more of a symbolic gesture by Congress if it passes.
“Most of the work has already been done,” Flynn said.
Between Oklahoma City and Tulsa, a network of paid and volunteer immigration attorneys and nonprofit workers helped nearly all Afghans submit applications for humanitarian parole extensions, asylum, special immigrant visas or permanent residency. Most parolees who were not served by the federally funded efforts found private legal help elsewhere, Jordan De Lara said.
Gavern said the Afghan Adjustment Act could still be helpful for families with complicated or weak asylum claims or special immigrant visa applications still pending approval.
“If by the time it passes it only helps one family find relief, then I too will find relief,” Gavern said.
Depending on the final language, the legislation could be a lifeline to Afghans like Ahmadi and Eyvazi — or not. The wording in the act limits eligibility to applicants who were admitted or paroled into the United States only after the act becomes law.
“It’s the ‘or’ word that makes it unclear,” Gavern said. “Language like that is common in immigration law. We will have to wait and see if the act passes, then how it’s interpreted and what guidance we get from USCIS, to know exactly what it means.”
Ahmadi and Eyvazi can’t wait for Congress. They are focused on being able to provide for their baby. Besides, Ahmadi said, they are used to living with uncertainty after a lifetime in Afghanistan.
“As Afghans, and as minorities in our own country, we are not strangers to this kind of pressure and stress,” Ahmadi said. “I don’t know what will happen tomorrow, but today we live free.”
Ed. Note: This post was updated on 11/2/2023 to correct the nature of the subjects’ studies in the photo caption.
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 email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @LionelRamos_.