A Boston civil rights group is challenging the U.S. government's denial of humanitarian relief to scores of Afghans fleeing from the Taliban.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts filed a lawsuit in Boston federal court Wednesday on behalf of Afghans and their New England-area families seeking to bring them to the U.S. through a rarely used immigration provision known as humanitarian parole.
The organization says the denials left Afghans stranded and at risk of being killed, after the hardline Taliban seized control of the country by force last August as U.S. and other foreign forces withdrew in the chaotic end to a 20-year war.
One Afghan plaintiff, who is only named by pseudonym, applied for humanitarian parole for six family members, only to have three of them killed while awaiting decisions on their requests, according to the suit.
In its lawsuit, the ACLU cites the experiences of Afghan women who held prominent positions before the Taliban imposed more restrictive measures, as well as Afghans who worked for the U.S. government or the U.S.-backed Afghan government.
The humanitarian parole program doesn’t provide a direct path to lawful permanent residence, but those on it can apply for asylum or other immigration relief if eligible. The program allows people to temporarily enter the country for “urgent humanitarian or significant public benefit reasons,” according to USCIS’s website.
Federal agencies named in the suit, including the State Department, Homeland Security Department and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, didn’t respond to emails seeking comment Thursday.
The suit, which the ACLU filed along with the Boston law firm Mintz, argues that the government promised endangered Afghans they were eligible for humanitarian parole.
Immigration officials abruptly stopped processing humanitarian parole requests after thousands of Afghans applied for the program last August and September, the ACLU states. Then in November, USCIS imposed stricter standards that resulted in most Afghan applications being denied.
The ACLU argues the changes violated federal rules and requests a federal judge order applications be promptly adjudicated or re-adjudicated under the original standards.
“The government has a responsibility to apply its laws fairly, effectively, and efficiently,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, in a statement.
The denials are all the more frustrating given the swift relief afforded to Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion of their homeland in recent months, said Chiara St. Pierre, a lawyer with the Massachusetts-based International Institute of New England, a refugee resettlement agency that had been helping Afghans seek humanitarian parole but isn't involved in the ACLU lawsuit.
The new humanitarian parole process created specifically for Ukrainians has been able to process 6,000 applications within its first three weeks — far exceeding the total number of Afghan humanitarian parole adjudications in the nine months since last August, the lawsuit states. The Ukrainian program also waives costly application filing fees and allows applications to be completed online without requiring travel to a consulate.
“Ukrainians deserve protections too, but the Uniting for Ukraine program solidifies that our government is making a choice regarding these Afghan applications and letting them languish,” St. Pierre said Thursday. “The government does in fact have the ability to actually adjudicate these cases because they are doing so for Ukrainians and with a special program designed specifically for them.”