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Time to treat Afghan allies with same respect as those fleeing Ukraine

FILE - The flags of Afghanistan and the United States are seen on the table before a meeting at the Pentagon in Washington, June 25, 2021. The United States has taken control of Afghanistan's embassy in Washington and the country's consulates in New York and California. The State Department says it had assumed “sole responsibility” for the security and maintenance of the diplomatic missions effective on Monday and will bar anyone from entering them without its permission. The move came after the department said the embassy and consulates had “formally ceased conducting diplomatic and consular activities in the United States.” (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

In the months following Russia’s winter invasion of Ukraine, President Biden announced the U.S. would accept up to 100,000 Ukrainians and established “Uniting for Ukraine,” a program that streamlines and expands the humanitarian parole process for Ukrainians to gain admittance to America.

The United States’s immediate action and strong commitment to help Ukrainians during a humanitarian crisis is truly commendable. Yet, one year after the U.S.’s dramatic evacuation from Afghanistan, many Afghans who risked their lives to assist the U.S. in the fight against the Taliban and for democratic ideals are still looking for a pathway to the United States. And Afghans who were evacuated to the U.S. remain in limbo with no assurance they can stay or work when their humanitarian parole expires in 2023.

Correcting for this inaction is a matter of national security — in future conflicts, why would anyone risk their lives by serving alongside our soldiers or providing critical translation services if the U.S. can’t keep our promises to them when we depart? We cannot allow our enemies to claim that the U.S. cannot be trusted.

To do right by our Afghan allies and national security, Washington must streamline the pathway for Afghans to get to America and establish a program that leads to permanent resident status.

Humanitarian parole was used to allow both Afghans and Ukrainians to lawfully enter the U.S. While humanitarian parole brought more than 76,000 Afghan evacuees to the U.S. immediately after the fall of Kabul, the program is largely failing Afghans still living abroad.

The path for Ukrainians is much clearer and streamlined than for Afghans. The “Uniting for Ukraine” program allows U.S. citizens to sponsor Ukrainians, agreeing to financially support them throughout the application process and their stay in the U.S.

The program also waives the application fee and in-person interview requirement.

In contrast, since July 2021, more than 45,000 Afghans have applied for humanitarian parole. Fewer than 2,500 applications have been processed and most have been denied. Only 270 were approved, and the vast majority of applicants have yet to be processed.

Afghans must also overcome bureaucratic hurdles to obtain humanitarian parole that Ukrainians do not. There is a $575 per person application fee — more than the average Afghan typically makes in a year. Afghan applicants must be under a specific risk of serious harm and are required to complete an in-person interview at a U.S. embassy, which is nearly impossible because there is no longer an operating embassy in Afghanistan.

Alternative options to enter the U.S. that provide a pathway to lawful permanent residency, such as the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP), are currently backlogged. USRAP was nearly dismantled by the Trump administration. Despite President Biden’s efforts to raise quotas from historic lows under Trump, the still decimated infrastructure means applicants could wait years before receiving an answer.

The Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) is also available to Afghans who worked directly with the U.S. government, but the difficulty in obtaining necessary verification documentation has only increased. The Biden administration did not increase the ability to process these applications in anticipation of the influx of Afghans, and the application process remains complicated and slow.

Because permanent visas aren’t a realistic alternative, the U.S. must level the playing field to ensure Afghan allies have the same opportunities as Ukrainians. A program like “Uniting for Ukraine” would eliminate application barriers for overseas Afghans.

Additionally, Congress must pass an Afghan Adjustment Act to expedite pathways for evacuated Afghans currently living in the U.S. to receive permanent resident legal status. The U.S. has a history of passing similar legislation after military conflicts, including after the rise of Fidel Castro in Cuba, the Vietnam War and conflicts in Iraq.

For 20 years, American forces worked hand-in-hand with Afghans. What was true a year ago, as the U.S. withdrew, remains true now: We must not turn our backs on our Afghan allies.

Margaret D. Stock, lieutenant colonel (retired), is an attorney with the Anchorage office of Cascadia Cross Border Law Group LLC. She transferred to the Retired Reserve of the U.S. Army in June 2010 after serving 28 years as a Military Police Corps officer in the Army Reserve. She is a member of the Council on National Security and Immigration.

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