As recently as last week, the U.S. immigration service was using six officers to process about 14,000 humanitarian requests for Afghans seeking relocation to the United States following the Taliban takeover of the country in August.
That's what the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service recently told congressional staff, Congressman Jim Langevin, a Democrat from Rhode Island, said Thursday during a House Homeland Security Committee meeting.
"I want to say that again: 14,000 humanitarian parole applications with just six officers," Langevin said. "That is completely and utterly unacceptable, and I call on USCIS to address the shortcoming immediately."
A spokesman for Langevin told VOA that the information about the USCIS backlog came during an October 12 agency briefing for congressional staff.
Humanitarian parole is a special permission given to foreigners to enter the United States under emergency circumstances. While it does not automatically lead to permanent residence, "parolees" can apply for legal status once they're in the U.S.
In a typical year, USCIS gets fewer than 2,000 humanitarian parole requests from around the world, according to a USCIS official, who spoke on background.
But since August, the agency has received a total of nearly 20,000 such requests for Afghan nationals outside the United States, the official said in a statement to VOA on Friday. That is up from 14,000 in mid-October.
The vast majority of the applications have been filed by Afghan Americans on behalf of relatives back home who have no other options for relocating to the United States, according to community activists. A much larger number of Afghans with ties to the U.S. military, U.S. government and U.S. non-governmental organizations have applied for special immigrant visas or refugee status.
Asked about Langevin's criticism of the humanitarian parole backlog, the official said the agency is actively assigning additional staff to address the workload.
"USCIS issued an agencywide request for volunteers to help process applications for humanitarian and significant public benefit parole and the agency will have significantly more staff assigned to this workload in the coming weeks," the official said.
The deluge of applications has nonetheless overwhelmed the immigration service.
Afghan American lawyer Wogai Mohmand said the number of Afghan humanitarian parole requests could reach as high as 150,000 in a year.
"Their systems are not equipped to deal with that kind of volume," Mohmand said during a recent webinar hosted by several advocacy organizations. "Frankly, they don’t have enough staff to look at all those applications."
And assigning more officials to the humanitarian parole cases is not going to help anyone get out of Afghanistan, according to Sunil Varghese, policy director for International Refugee Assistance Project.
Varghese said that before parolees are admitted into the United States, they must have their fingerprints taken, identifies verified and travel documents issued by the U.S. embassy.
But the U.S. embassy in Kabul shut down at the end of August and moved to Doha, Qatar. As a result, once an Afghan applicant is deemed eligible for parole, he or she is instructed by USCIS to travel to a third country for vetting and biometrics.
With foreign visas hard to come by and regular commercial flights yet to resume, traveling to a third country for vetting is not an option for most Afghans, according to advocates.
If they do make it through the process "the Department of State issues a boarding letter for the applicant to take a commercial carrier, at their own expense, to the United States," the official explained.
Even in the best of circumstances, the difficulty many Afghans face in reaching an overseas U.S. consulate has had undesirable consequences. Take the case of Fatima Khashee. As security deteriorated in July, the 61-year-old's son, a U.S. permanent resident, filed a humanitarian parole request on her behalf.
In her case, USCIS acted fairly quickly, approving her application within 20 days on August 24, according to her son, who requested that he not be identified by name.
But by then the Taliban had overrun the country. The embassy, having relocated to the Kabul international airport, had transferred her case to Turkey. By the time she made it to Istanbul 30 days later, her parole authorization expired.
"It wasn’t my mother’s fault that her parole was expired," the son said in a message to VOA. "She paid triple of regular price to get [the] first flights [that] became available out of Afghanistan. She tried every possible channel to get out sooner, but all land borders and airlines were closed."
One month later, Khashee remains stuck at an Istanbul hotel, waiting for what her son describes as a long-overdue, updated parole reauthorization.
"That is unbelievable and very disappointing," he said of the six officers adjudicating 14,000 applications.
It costs $575 to apply for humanitarian parole, a figure that adds up to several thousand dollars for a family of six and that some members of Congress want to see waived. Despite the cost and uncertainty over their approval, however, many Afghan Americans continue to file applications for their loved ones.
"First, they don’t have any other options available," Khashee’s son said. "Secondly, they are all still hopeful that the USCIS approve their cases considering the situation in Afghanistan. Most of them are not aware how hard it is to be approved for humanitarian parole."
The USCIS official did not respond to questions about whether the agency has approved any Afghan humanitarian parole requests and how long it would take the agency to clear the backlog.