(WASHINGTON) — “I’m in danger,” the daughter cried to her father from thousands of miles away in Afghanistan.
“We cannot go outside with friends. Before, we were going outside to restaurants, shopping, but now we are like prisoners in our own home,” she said, her voice full of fear, saying Taliban fighters might find her.
“Mina” (ABC News has changed her name for her protection and that of others), a university-educated and unmarried Afghan woman, separated from her family in the U.S., was pleading for help on a call with advocates trying to get her out.
With her father having aided the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, and her immediate family living in New Jersey, Mina is in hiding, saying she fears her ties to the U.S. make her a target.
On a recording of a call ABC News listened to, her voice was breaking.
“I’m not mentally good nowadays because this situation is a burden on me,” she said, adding that she did not know which relative she might find shelter with next.
“She is under pressure,” her father said, helping translate for a daughter he said is normally proficient in English. “Now in this status situation, she forgot her language. She forgot her information. She forgot her mind.”
Mina’s mother says she isn’t used to relying on medication to fall asleep, but after calls like this one, she says she needs it to escape the dark reality facing her only daughter — blaming herself for Mina being left behind.
Mina’s parents and two brothers were able to come to the U.S. in 2016 on her father’s Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV, granted to those who helped the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. Her oldest brother, who also worked with the U.S., immigrated in 2018 under the same program. But Mina, now 34, aged out to qualify as a dependent.
While her father has petitioned since 2018 to bring her to the U.S. via a Petition for Alien Relative, a route that permanent, lawful residents can use to bring immediate relatives to the U.S., the chaotic evacuation of American troops from the country at the end of August ignited a desperate search for options.
“It’s life or death,” Elizabeth Dembrowsky, the attorney who’s handling Mina’s case from New York, told ABC News. “Her father’s worked and aided the United States — because of their interests — and because of that aid, he’s put his daughter at risk.”
Mina’s father said he sometimes regrets not lying about her age on the SIV application, believing, he said, that if he hadn’t abided by the rules of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS, his daughter might already be with them.
He says people in Afghanistan know her immediate family lives in the U.S. and mockingly call her “‘the Americans’ daughter."”
‘Please help my daughter’
Dembrowsky founded Good Counsel Services, a nonprofit that offers legal advice to other nonprofit organizations, in 2016. Volunteering at an immigration office while studying at Brooklyn Law School, she met a man who had helped the U.S. mission in Afghanistan who then started recommending her legal services to his friends. One of them was Mina’s father who first contacted her in 2018.
“‘Please help my daughter"” were the only words in an email Mina’s father sent her last month.
Dembrowsky is actively working on filing humanitarian parole applications in 13 similar cases, a legal route she took with Mina’s case as U.S. troops left the country, taking with them the hopes of many Afghans desperate to escape.
Granted by USCIS on a “case-by-case basis,” humanitarian parole allows certain individuals to enter and reside in the U.S. without a visa. Each application comes with a $575 fee and extensive paperwork, including an “Affidavit of Support” that serves as proof a sponsor has agreed to provide financial support to the person who is known as the parolee. It’s a process Dembrowsky said has bipartisan backing.
“You can wring your hands and scream and blame the former or current president or the entire decision to go into Afghanistan, but it’s not helpful because the crisis is ongoing. We have people today that need to be taken out of there, and we as Americans can help by volunteering to serve as sponsors,” Dembrowsky said.
Once a sponsor is secured, it can take weeks to months to process applications. There’s currently a backlog of roughly 11,000, according to the National Immigration Forum. That does not include the majority of SIV holders — tens of thousands of people — who were also left behind in the abrupt evacuation. Dembrowsky is calling on the federal government to do more to expedite applications from allies and their families she says the U.S. “abandoned.”
To expedite a parole application, a person can directly write or call immigration services, but advocates say an often more effective route is having a member of Congress contact them about a specific application on their behalf. Dembrowsky said she contacted the offices of Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., on Sept. 2, and of Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. on Sept. 23.
“My office is working closely with the Department of State, USCIS, and family members in New Jersey to bring this young woman safely to the United States. We are making progress on her case and are confident that she will be able to join her family in New Jersey,” Pallone told ABC News in a statement on Thursday afternoon.
Dembrowsky learned late Wednesday that Mina’s Petition for Alien Relative application, filed in 2018 to prove she was related to her family, was “processed,” but they haven’t been contacted about next steps. Mina’s humanitarian parole application still hangs in limbo, as they do for thousands of Afghan nationals.
The UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency, has reported more than half a million Afghans have been internally displaced since January due to Taliban advances, 80% of whom are women and children.
‘Matter of political will’
Even if Mina’s parole application is conditionally approved, there’s still a major caveat.
With the U.S. Embassy in Kabul closed, she must make the dangerous and uncertain trek to an embassy or consulate in another country for additional processing. That journey has been made nearly impossible since the former Afghan government collapsed and the U.S. withdrew — with few flights out of the country and uncertainty over how to get a seat, or risky travel over land through Taliban checkpoints.
“It’s extremely difficult and that’s why, while this humanitarian parole application process can offer some hope, it’s not an easy solution,” Danilo Zak, a senior policy and advocacy associate at the National Immigration Forum, told ABC News. “In general, it’s going to be very difficult for people to escape on their own now.”
Mina’s devoted father said in the call reviewed by ABC News that he would personally find a way to get her across the border.
He just needs the paperwork.
“If the government makes excuse that there is no embassy of America in Kabul … if they issue the visa for her, paper-wise, and send by email, I can go to third country and evacuate her from Afghanistan and process her documentation and visa and fingerprint and interview with her — and then I will bring her with me,” he said.
Dembrowsky said her team is also working with veterans groups to help facilitate safe passage if and when Mina is deemed eligible and called for processing at an embassy or consulate.
Despite what may seem like insurmountable obstacles, Zak said granting humanitarian parole is the most effective option right now for those left behind because the process was designed for quick, emergency evacuations. The U.S. has repeatedly granted parole to allies, under presidents of both parties, under the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, including 130,000 parolees after the Vietnam War.
“We can’t discriminate against these parolees for the nature of the emergency evacuation — which is really what we’re doing here,” Zak said, arguing the need for an Afghan Adjustment Act to establish a pathway for refugees and parolees to permanent residency.
Further congressional action, such as expediting immigration processes and mandating the U.S. work with allies to create safe evacuation routes, he said, is all “a matter of political will.”
“That’s what we saw before the evacuation, where suddenly we actually were able to ramp up SIV processes. The same thing is true now,” he said. “It’s just a matter of making this a top priority to evacuate those who remain at risk in Afghanistan.”
‘What would I do?’
For now, Mina waits — in hiding.
And volunteers at Good Counsel Services continue lobbying lawmakers — and everyday Americans — on cases like hers.
When Congress passed its continuing resolution last month to prevent a government shutdown, it included a provision of benefits for Afghan parolees they otherwise wouldn’t be able to access without a visa, such as housing, childcare and federal financial support, critical for volunteer agencies and for recruiting all-important sponsors.
“The result is that resettlement agencies can play a much, much larger role for many of those who are coming in under parole, and that means that there’s less of responsibility for the sponsor, and certainly no responsibility to house them,” Zak said.
Dembrowsky, for her part, said she’s asked daily to take on more applications for people still desperate to get out, but lamented she won’t commit to them without securing financial sponsors first.
“I just don’t want to throw this life preserver and not be able to hold on to the other end of it,” she said.
One person who answered her call is Ford Seeman, a social impact entrepreneur in New York, who credited being adopted at birth for giving him a unique understanding of how one’s future can be affected by circumstance. He’s donated $10,000 to Good Counsel Services for the cause, as well as agreed to gather the necessary documents and sign on to sponsor a potential parolee.
“I’m honored and, frankly, feel somewhat obligated to share with those facing overwhelming obstacles,” he told ABC News in an email. “We are all one people and need to look out for each other.”
While thousands of Afghans like Mina face an uncertain fate, Dembrowsky said the U.S. is facing a moment of moral reckoning.
“I wasn’t alive during the Holocaust. I wasn’t alive during the Civil Rights movement in the 60s. But we, as humans, ask ourselves these questions, ‘What would I do in that circumstance?"” Dembrowsky said. “Today in Afghanistan, there is something we can do, and if we refuse to do something — and if anything were to happen to her — it will be on our collective hands.”
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