For some Afghans, asking for asylum is complicated

ROANOKE, Va. (AP) — A year after fleeing Afghanistan and losing everything for the second time in his life, Mohammad Naziry sat down in the safety of his Roanoke apartment and discussed what’s most important to him.

At the top of this short list is the health and well-being of his family.

Then he must obtain asylum, which would give him permanent residence in the United States.

“I want to be able-bodied so I can really work hard and try to build a life here,” Naziry said. “Otherwise where am I going, you know, if I don’t have my proper documentation?” So it’s really important. »

Since the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan in August 2021, 214 Afghans have come to the Roanoke and New River valleys, according to Commonwealth Catholic Charities, the nonprofit that helps immigrants and refugees settle in Virginia.

Naziry is one of many seeking asylum, a form of protection that allows refugees to stay in the United States rather than be deported to a country where they fear persecution or persecution of their families. Asylum seekers must apply for protection within one year of arriving in the United States. Many refugees have arrived on special immigration visas or humanitarian parole, which often allow permanent residence in the country.

Naziry, however, did not receive a special immigration visa, although he said he and his family rented living spaces from US government contractors during the time of the state-backed Afghan government. -United.

“Since our houses were rented out in the United States,” Naziry said, “we now have in mind that the Taliban are going to tell us, ‘You are working with them. You rented your houses to them, so we’re not going to spare you. We’re going to slit your throat.

Joe Mott, a retired senior Justice Department official, served as a liaison officer in Afghanistan from 2018 to 2020 and helps Naziry’s family seek asylum. Mott volunteers with Episcopal Community Sponsorship, a ministry that has joined the newly formed Community Sponsorship Program of Commonwealth Catholic Charities.

Naziry, his wife, their two sons and his mother are here on humanitarian parole, which is granted to people in dire need of entering the United States.

“They weren’t eligible for SIV because they weren’t employees of the US government or a US government contractor,” Mott said. “In their case, the pathway to seek asylum is through the threat of harm if they return to their country of origin.”

Flee the Taliban

As the Taliban took control of Kabul in 2021, Naziry and his family of five fled their home with a hot uneaten dinner at the table, dirty dishes in the sink and the TV still on, broadcasting the news . They filled a suitcase for each of them. They didn’t know where to go.

Naziry told his story in English and Dari, with the help of a translator from the Commonwealth Catholic Charities.

He and his family are Shia Hazara, an ethnic minority in Afghanistan that has long faced discrimination and persecution in the country.

Naziry, 36, remembers the Taliban taking over Afghanistan in the late 1990s when he was a young boy. The Taliban took and tortured his father and brother because they were Hazara, he said. His father died of these injuries a few days after his return. Naziry said his brother’s hands were still shaking in torment.

Naziry and his family fled to Pakistan soon after. When they returned to Afghanistan in 2002 after the United States and its allies ousted the Taliban from power, Naziry started a bridal shop.

“I was a hard worker. I was well off and made a lot of money, I made a good living,” Naziry said. He shared his wealth with his neighbors, such as providing beds for children who previously slept on the floor. “I said, ‘Where are your pillows? Where are your blankets? And they say, ‘We don’t have that.’ And it blew a hole in my heart.

“The system is down”

Mott, the attorney assisting Naziry and his family, said their claim for asylum is supported by the fact that they have assisted US government contractors, but also by who they are.

“These are Shia Muslims who are under frequent attack, especially by ISIS, even in the past two months,” Mott said. “Furthermore, they are part of the Hazara minority, which has always faced discrimination and oppression under the former Taliban regime.”

The kidnapping and beating of Naziry’s father by the Taliban is an example of what Hazara Shia is facing, Mott said.

According to Rachel Thompson, an immigration attorney with Poarch Thompson Law in Salem, applying for permanent residence in the United States can be an uncertain path, take years and possibly end in rejection.

“The system is broken,” Thompson said.

Once an application is submitted, it can take years before an asylum officer interview is scheduled with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Thompson said some clients who filed claims four years ago still haven’t had interviews.

“It kind of compromises their due process, because with each passing day the evidence gets old, it becomes stale.”

Asylum seekers must prove that their life is in danger — because of their race, religion, nationality, and membership of a particular social group or political opinion — if they return to their country of origin. ‘origin.

“If you have a minor contradiction (on your record), your case could be thrown out,” Thompson said. “If the application is not completed correctly, it could be rejected or refused.”

Jennifer Smyrnos, an immigration attorney with Grace Immigration in Roanoke, said the average wait time can be years for an asylum interview with her firm. Due to barriers to seeking asylum, she advised Afghan families in Roanoke to consider applying for Temporary Protected Status, which allows displaced people to stay in the United States for up to 18 months, a period that can be extended.

“The TPS program provides them with the minimum of what they need to start their life here in the United States, such as a work card and a social security number,” Smyrnos said.

Afghanistan is one of 15 countries currently designated for Temporary Protected Status by United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Smyrnos understands that many families want permanent homes, but said many Afghan families who came to Roanoke last fall will struggle to meet the criteria to be approved.

“Even with a country in turmoil like Afghanistan, which has been subjected to Taliban terror, that does not automatically mean that its civilian population will be granted green cards or approvals for asylum status,” he said. she declared. “We see it clearly in immigration courts and agencies.”

The backlog of immigration cases is nearly 1.5 million and growing, according to the Transactional Research Access Clearinghouse, a Syracuse University-based data research organization that tracks immigration reports. According to the group, Virginia’s 69,120 pending immigration cases are the sixth-largest in the United States. That’s a nearly seven-fold increase over the past decade.

Data from TRAC Immigration shows that as of July, more than 1,500 pending cases from the Roanoke Valley are waiting to be heard in Virginia immigration court.

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., heard multiple concerns about wait times for permanent resident status and citizenship, during an August meeting with more than 20 members of the local South Asian community at the Baymont Inn in Salem.

Kaine said the backlog of immigration cases in court is due to the pandemic and restrictions imposed by the administration of former President Donald Trump.

“Everything on the immigration side, and a whole lot of other stuff as well, has kind of been saved during COVID,” Kaine told reporters after meeting with citizens. “And then there was a backlog. And then second, listen, the Trump administration wasn’t interested in making it easy for people. … Even people who are in the United States and had green cards have found that the process of going from green card to citizen is slowed down. So I think there was an intentional effort to slow down in the previous administration on anything related to immigration.

Smyrnos said Temporary Protected Status, with its easier access, is a solid option for obtaining legal status in the United States, compared to the lengthy asylum process.

“TPS is being considered as a temporary measure,” she said. “But in practice, this acts as a long-term measure because Congress has repeatedly reauthorized TPS programs over the past 20 years. Until Congress meets and proposes comprehensive immigration reform, which has not been addressed in over a quarter of a century, immigration practice today is largely frame piecemeal of federal regulations, executive actions, agency programs and political whims.

People like Naziry can only wait while their requests go through the system.

“Right now it’s a bit difficult for me. I am new to this county,” Naziry said. “But here, it’s peace. I can work. I can go home. I can be happy with my family. If I can stay here for my future, that’s it for me.

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