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U.S. is accused of a double standard when it comes to Afghan and Ukrainian refugees

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

In the weeks after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the Biden administration announced plans to accept 100,000 refugees from the war. But the move has raised questions about a possible double standard. When the Taliban took over Afghanistan last August, the United States evacuated about 79,000 Afghans. But most who made it to the U.S. still have no clear way to stay. And back in Afghanistan, thousands who were promised U.S. visas are still stuck. NPR's Quil Lawrence reports.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Naheed Farid was a member of Afghanistan's parliament, well connected with the U.S. State Department. And the Taliban knew that.

NAHEED FARID: I was receiving different threats from ISIS K, from Haqqani Network, from the Taliban. And imagine if I was in Afghanistan, and they definitely would harm me.

LAWRENCE: As her home city of Herat fell, she fled the country. Farid has a green card, and her husband is a U.S. citizen. So they can stay here in the U.S. She's even got a fellowship at Princeton. But in the chaos last August, she took her sister-in-law's children and got them out. Now they can't get the kids' parents here.

FARID: We tried to bring them to the U.S., but still, it didn't work. It's since last August that they didn't see their parents. Imagine how hard it is for their parents, especially for the mom.

LAWRENCE: Shaheed (ph) knows she's one of the lucky ones. Of the Afghans airlifted out to military bases in the U.S., about half - 36,000 - are here on what's called humanitarian parole, giving them two years to stay. But almost a year in, they have no clear legal option to remain after that. U.S. Immigration Services told NPR they've received 46,000 requests for humanitarian parole from Afghans in the past year. And from Afghans outside the U.S., only 300 were granted. Jennifer Patota with the International Refugee Assistance Project says the government has to do more.

JENNIFER PATOTA: Many hundreds or thousands of people have applied for humanitarian parole as a way to try to get themselves and their families out of danger. The U.S. government has simply sat on the applications and has not processed the vast majority.

LAWRENCE: Patota is also working on SIVs, Special Immigrant Visas, a program for Afghans who worked with the U.S. military. It's been backlogged since its creation in 2009. The State Department says it has increased resources to get more SIV candidates out of Afghanistan, but there are tens of thousands of them, including one of Jennifer Patota's clients.

SARBAZ: (Speaking Dari).

LAWRENCE: Sarbaz, who we agreed to call just by his nickname, defused bombs for U.S. Green Berets.

SARBAZ: (Through interpreter) We were working for the U.S. Special Forces, and they were conducting operations days and night. We were dismantling landmines which were placed by the Taliban. Our job was dangerous, and the threat were extremely high.

LAWRENCE: U.S. military records show that while on the job in May of 2020, a Taliban gunman shot Sarbaz in the spine. He woke up nine days later on a U.S. base surrounded by military doctors.

SARBAZ: (Through interpreter) And they were very happy that I opened my eyes. But right now I'm in a wheelchair. I cannot walk.

LAWRENCE: The bullet paralyzed him from the waist down. When Kabul fell last August, Sarbaz couldn't get through the crowds at the airport in his wheelchair. And since then, he's been in hiding. He has a request of the U.S. government.

SARBAZ: (Through interpreter) They should not forget me. I, myself, do not have anything in my life right now. But at least they can fulfill the wish of my wife and my child in order to have a bright future.

SHAWN VANDIVER: And so we owe them a life debt. We owe them a debt of gratitude. We owe them what we promised them.

LAWRENCE: Shawn VanDiver is a Navy veteran with a coalition called AfghanEvac, which is pushing to revamp the SIV program.

VANDIVER: Because we sent young men and women far afield to Afghanistan and Iraq, and we said, you tell these folks that if they stand with us, we'll stand with them. What Congress has done is turned us into liars.

LAWRENCE: VanDiver mentions Congress because there is a legislative fix. The Biden administration has asked Congress to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act, which would streamline the process for SIV candidates and other Afghans to get legal status in the U.S. Congress left that provision out of the Ukraine funding bill last month because some Republicans claimed that Afghans need more vetting. It has not escaped notice that help for Ukraine, a predominantly white Christian country, has come much faster than help for Afghan allies.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEEB'S "FLUID DYNAMICS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Quil Lawrence
Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.