Afghans Left Behind by the U.S. Face Hardships After Crossing from Mexico

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As a lawyer in northern Afghanistan, Sara Sadat was moving between safe houses, on the run from the Taliban, whose members she had prosecuted.

Afraid for her life, she left on a plane to Brazil last September with her husband and three young children, hoping to make it to the U.S. As she trekked through one of the world’s most dangerous migration routes in South America, knee-deep in muddy water, she clung tightly to her 2-year-old son. She and her family arrived in the U.S. in April after traveling through almost a dozen countries and passing through the perilous Darién crossing, nestled between Panama and Colombia. “I took this dangerous path for my family to stay alive, in order for my kids to have a chance,” says Sadat, who is using a pseudonym because of fear of violence from the Taliban.

Sadat is among thousands of Afghans who flew to Brazil and took a similar route to the U.S. after the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan following the U.S. troop withdrawal in 2021. Yet had these Afghans made it onto the American planes that evacuated civilians in the days following the Taliban takeover or another official path in the months that followed, the U.S. government would have provided significantly more financial and logistical help, including cash assistance to pay for food and rent. It would have assigned them to a local refugee agency to ease their transition and help access legal services and file for asylum. Instead, Afghans like Sadat who came over the Southern border hoping to seek asylum are often left bouncing between shelters without much official assistance and a harder time landing a job, despite fleeing from the same threat.

The problem is growing. Lawyers and community advocates say they are seeing more Afghans come through the Southern border since last winter. Now, every month, hundreds of Afghans are trying to cross through the Darién crossing; more than 3,600 Afghans have traveled this route since the beginning of 2022, per officials in Panama, the New York Times reported.

The disparities once these Afghans arrive in the country—many of whom are settling in New York City, California, Texas, and the Washington, D.C. area—are stark. In the aftermath of the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul, the U.S. granted humanitarian parole status to more than 75,000 Afghans, which allowed them to arrive without waiting years for a refugee or visa process to unfold. It also gave them access to a broad range of benefits. The Biden Administration recently extended that parole for at least another two years. But for those Afghans without parole—like many of those who crossed the Southern border, including Sadat—little help exists.

“That they are ending up in different legal status situations with varying levels of access to support is another way the U.S. has failed to keep this promise,” says Julia Gelatt, a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, referring to the American government’s pledge to help those in danger, especially Afghans who aided the U.S.

Some advocates, such as Shala Gafary, managing attorney for Afghan Legal Assistance at Human Rights First, are calling for the U.S. government to expand parole status to Afghans who crossed the Southern border. “It’s a small alteration in immigration policy that can make a huge impact on their lives,” she says.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) referred TIME’s questions about the policy differences to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which includes the Office of Refugee Resettlement and referred TIME back to DHS. DHS announced more than $290 million in congressional funding for communities receiving migrants, including but not limited to Afghans, in June.

In Sadat’s case, she says she couldn’t make the evacuation planes from Kabul to the U.S. because it was a nine-hour car journey from her city of Mazar-i-Sharif to Kabul through roads littered with Taliban checkpoints. Sadat and her family are Shia, a minority Muslim sect that has faced systemic violence at the hands of the Taliban.

Sadat and her family have settled in New York City. For now, they are staying at a hotel in Brooklyn. She is still figuring out how to enroll her children in school.

Finding work is another matter. For Afghans who come through the Southern border and aren’t granted parole, getting a job is a daunting task even if they arrive with work experience and skills. They first need to apply for asylum—a confusing process made more difficult by the challenges of finding legal counsel and making sure to file in the right court in what may be an unfamiliar language. They also need to wait about five months after filing asylum to file for a work authorization card—while those coming with humanitarian parole from the evacuation flights were entitled to work authorization much faster.

Sadat and her husband do not have jobs or work authorization. They have not yet applied for asylum and are being connected to legal counsel through Afghans for a Better Tomorrow, a nonprofit. Sadat has a court date in Michigan on August 23 to appear before DHS, which alleges she has not been admitted or paroled after inspection by an immigration officer. She isn’t sure how she will get to Michigan.

Arash Azizzada, a community organizer with Afghans for a Better Tomorrow who has spent the last few weeks in New York City organizing help for Afghans who crossed the Southern border, says their situation is “much more precarious” compared to those who came through official channels. “For us, there is no difference between somebody who comes through an official channel versus an Afghan asylum seeker…but the disparity we’ve seen, it’s pretty steep,” Azizzada says.

He explains that many Afghans who crossed the Southern border likely ended up in New York City because of its unique shelter laws, which guarantee a legal right to shelter without any residency or income requirements. “If it wasn’t for New York City, a lot of these folks would be sleeping on the street,” he says. Of the roughly 300 Afghans who crossed the Southern border that the group is helping, only about one or two dozen have received some sort of parole that allows them to access more benefits, according to Azizzada—and that status often only lasts for a few months.

At Brooklyn Bridge Park, on a hot summer day in June, more than 100 Afghans who crossed the Southern border met for a picnic organized by Afghans For a Better Tomorrow. Among those in attendance: Sadat and her family, a father of three who lost his wife to a rare disease during the journey through South America, a journalist whose TV station was targeted by the Taliban, and an actor fearful that his roles in romance movies could endanger him. Children play soccer, a young man plucks an Afghan string instrument known as a rebab, and an older one prays on a prayer mat. Organizers provide Sadat’s family with a phone; she lost hers and most of her important documents on the journey. That’s the biggest help her family has received so far, she says.

The picnic is a peaceful scene that many of these families could not imagine months ago as they made the journey from Brazil. In the U.S., there is safety, but the cost of coming through this unofficial route is high.

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