Action in Congress on green cards and an administrative change on humanitarian parole by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has injected a rare bit of good news on immigration policy. The coming weeks will reveal if the news remains positive.
Humanitarian Parole: When the Biden administration decided to follow through on Donald Trump’s agreement with the Taliban to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, the central government in Kabul fell too quickly for many Afghans to escape to safety.
Biden officials used parole authority to bring tens of thousands of Afghans to America. However, that still left many other Afghans in danger.
“Months after the United States pulled out of Afghanistan, Andisha Shah [a U.S. resident] is still waiting to be reunited with her sister and nephews,” reported PBS NewsHour. “Since last September, they’ve been in Pakistan, where they were relocated after the Taliban fighters began their takeover. . . . Shah’s family is still waiting across the border in Pakistan while their relatives in the U.S. hold out for a decision on an application for humanitarian parole, a special program for people who could be granted temporary entry into the United States for ‘urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit.’”
The problem has been not only a lack of resources for USCIS to adjudicate humanitarian parole requests but also the standard used to approve or deny cases.
“Since July 2021, USCIS has received over 46,000 applications from Afghans hoping to come to the U.S. through the parole process,” according to CBS News. “But most parole applications from Afghans remain unresolved—and over 90% of fewer than 5,000 fully adjudicated requests have been denied . . . . As of June 2, only 297 parole requests from Afghans had been approved by USCIS, while 4,246 requests had been rejected, according to the agency figures, which suggest that most of the tens of thousands of pending cases will be rejected under the standards being used by the U.S. government.”
In May 2022, I shared a panel with a high-ranking USCIS official and said USCIS needed to take a look at the standard and the guidance it is using for humanitarian parole since it does not appear to be working for Afghans overseas, given that many applications are being denied.
The good news is USCIS has taken a look at the situation of Afghans seeking parole and added to its guidance on humanitarian parole in a way likely to result in a higher percentage of approvals for Afghans.
While it is not apparent at first glance, it is possible to compare USCIS guidance before and after June 23, 2022, and find the addition. In the section on “Guidance on Evidence for Certain Types of Humanitarian or Significant Public Benefit Parole Requests,” the new language appears in the subsection “To Come to the United States for Protection from Targeted or Individualized Harm.” It now states under examples of relevant evidence:
“Evidence that the beneficiary is a member of a targeted group, including: Credible third-party evidence that shows widespread targeting of the group for serious harm, such as a systematic or pervasive effort to impose serious harm against the group, and that individuals who are identified as members of that group are likely to be targeted for imminent serious harm; and Reliable documentation establishing the beneficiary’s membership in the targeted group and that the beneficiary is likely to be identified as a member of the targeted group and be at risk of imminent serious harm as a result.”
It is too early to know how much the new language will improve the approval rate for Afghans applying for humanitarian parole. Still, it is positive that USCIS acknowleged the problem and has attempted to address it. (Hamed Aleaziz of the Los Angeles Times first reported on the new guidance.)
Unused Green Cards: Wasted green cards would be unfortunate at anytime, given how many people value the opportunity to gain permanent residence in the United States. The issue became more pressing after USCIS did not process an estimated 200,000 green cards during the pandemic, a problem that began during the Trump administration.
The good news is a committee in Congress has responded. “Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY) introduced the measure as an amendment to fiscal 2023 appropriations for the Department of Homeland Security,” reported Ellen M. Gilmer and Andrew Kreighbaum for Bloomberg Government. “The Appropriations Committee voted 32-25 to adopt it. The amendment, which faces a long path to the finish line in the appropriations process, would allow DHS to recapture family and employment-based visas that went unused due to bureaucratic snags, processing delays, and other disruptions since 1992.
“The amendment would also make visas available to immigrants who weren’t allowed into the country because of Trump administration travel bans. Democrats tried to secure similar relief for backlogged immigrants in a partisan tax and social spending package that collapsed last year. Lawmakers from both parties have also tried to advance narrower recapture amendments in previous appropriations bills and standalone measures.”
The language of the amendment (see here) states the unused green cards would be issued without regard to the per-country limit, which, combined with the recapturing of green cards that went unused due to processing problems in the years before the pandemic, means tens of thousands of individuals waiting in the employment-based immigrant backlog would benefit, as well as individuals waiting in family backlogs.
Whether the amendment becomes law will come down to Republican lawmakers: Will the Republican position be to oppose relief for legal immigrants who followed the rules and could not immigrate because of government bureaucracy and other events beyond their control?