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Afghans, refugees, Mexico

Where’s the Help for Afghan Refugees?

Trump and Biden-era Title 42 policy has stranded thousands of Afghans in Central and South America and prevented them from seeking asylum in the US.

Words: Mursel Sabir
Pictures: Jezael Melgoza

On one seemingly uneventful morning, I woke up to a string of Whatsapp messages from my phone. “Traductor Afganos” I read on the notification banner. His name meant “Afghan translator,” and he was a contact of a contact who was becoming notorious for his translation skills from Spanish to Farsi. He informed me of a large family of 13 Afghans in Monterrey City, Mexico, who was requesting assistance from a nongovernmental organization. A husband, wife, and their 7 children, a grandmother, a nephew, and two nieces; the list of their names and ages spanned my entire screen. I got out of bed and began to ask myself: How can I help them?

Amidst the chaos of the collapse of the former Afghan national government came desperate efforts by at-risk Afghans to obtain evacuation flights that brought soon-to-be several hundred Afghans to Central and South America. Vulnerable to exploitation and feeling overwhelmed, these newly arrived Afghans made their way north in the hope of seeking asylum due to a lack of other viable options to immigrate to the United States. 

As asylum is protected by international law, arriving at the US-Mexico border meant they could ask the United States for refuge directly and enter the country lawfully under US asylum laws. Little did they know that the Trump and Biden-era Title 42 policy would prevent them from entering the United States to pursue their asylum claims. Instead, they would have to continue waiting in Mexico for a decision. Over the next two years, thousands of Afghan nationals would join the increasing number of asylum seekers in Mexico from all over the world, contemplating alternative routes in order to achieve safety in the United States. 

Despite over 66,000 humanitarian parole applications filed by Afghans, the US government has approved only 123 — while collecting $20 million in fees from our Afghan American community and other advocates.

A New York Times article highlighting the journey of a group of Afghans across South and Central America estimates that over 3600 Afghans are thought to have arrived in the region. The story of the Afghan family shared in the article echoed the stories of many of those who I met. They were translators, police members, soldiers in the Afghan Army, teachers, university directors, activists, and advocates. Most importantly, they were afraid for their lives and that of their loved ones if they remained in Afghanistan. Many of the Afghans I met had already applied for a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV); others were facing retribution from the Taliban due to their close proximity to the United States’ as Afghan allies. Yet, the SIV application process was tremendously backlogged for several years, in what felt to many like an intentional process meant to keep out as many Afghans as possible. 

Dwindling Hope

On the morning of that late-October day in 2021, I gathered information on the family from the translator. The father was a former teacher and principal of an elementary school from Panjshir province, which was currently under heavy fire for its resistance against the Taliban. He feared his distinct ethnic features and accent would be a dead giveaway as he maneuvered Taliban checkpoints during his hasty journey to move his family into neighboring Pakistan. A female relative in the group was a teacher at an all-girls school funded by an international nongovernmental organization. She was unmarried and afraid her political beliefs would bring harm to her and her family. They sought help from the Western nongovernmental organizations who worked alongside them for years.

No help ever came.

Like many Afghans before them, they were wary of me. To them, I was another stranger claiming I could help them reach the United States safely. Yet, nothing had changed in their asylum cases, and they were increasingly becoming distrustful of nongovernmental efforts while in Mexico. They had already felt a deep sense of betrayal from being abandoned by their Western employers after the government collapse. 

As their hope dwindled day by day, the deteriorating security conditions in Afghanistan made it impossible for the family to wait on a decision any longer. On account of the family’s ethnicity as Tajiks from the Panjshir region, the father made the critical decision to move his family out of fear of imprisonment — of himself and his teenage sons — on suspicion of affiliation with Northern resistance groups. 

For almost two years, the United States has provided no viable pathways to safety and refuge for Afghans such as this family. Despite over 66,000 humanitarian parole applications filed by Afghans, the US government has approved only 123 — while collecting $20 million in fees from our Afghan American community and other advocates. All the while, the United States has frozen Afghan sovereign assets, worsening the humanitarian crisis in the country.

Taking Matters Into Their Own Hands 

Many families, like the ones I met in Mexico, took every risk possible in order to come to the United States. Since the Taliban took over, almost 300,000 Ukrainians have entered the United States, showing that our government has the capacity to respond to humanitarian needs in a streamlined and cost-free manner allowing communities affected by war and conflict to seek refuge in the United States. Extending this pathway to Afghan nationals will support Afghans fleeing hunger, protect individuals at risk of persecution for their affiliations, and reunite families. 

As we mark World Refugee Day this year, the Biden administration ought to take stock of the harm it has caused to Afghans. I have seen firsthand the despair it has inflicted on us and the far-away places Afghans go to in order to find safety for themselves. The United States owes a huge debt to the Afghan people. It can start paying that debt by announcing a special Afghan parole program, so people like the family I met can find a new, safe home — here in America.

It’s the least the United States owes them.

Mursel Sabir

Mursel Sabir is a San Diego-based Afghan American community organizer. She is the co-founder of Afghans Empowered and currently serves as the project coordinator for Afghans For A Better Tomorrow, a community and advocacy organization aiming to bring about transformative change for Afghans in the United States and beyond. Afghans For A Better Tomorrow currently supports 200+ Afghan asylum seekers in the United States.

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