Many Afghans looked to the United States as a haven. After twenty years of serving alongside Americans, from the military to businesses, non-government organizations and educational institutions, expectations after Afghanistan’s regime change ran high. Surely the people with whom they worked would offer immigration opportunities in the land of the free. 88,500 Afghan citizens were fortunate to be airlifted out of the country, arriving in America with humanitarian parole benefits and a safe, secure chance to rebuild their lives.
Others were not.
Afghan refugees travel up to 16,000 miles, mostly by foot, to the United States because they are desperate. They have no choice. Fleeing one’s home is not a decision taken lightly. It means leaving behind everything familiar, everyone you once knew, often including your family. The route is perilous. According to the United Nations, 1,250 Afghan migrants have died trying to make the journey to freedom since 2021.
Countries such as Brazil offer refuge to asylum seekers, offering access to rights and services such as health, education and work permits. Yet the draw to migrate to the United States is strong. Many Afghans use this as a beginning point on their journey to America. From there, many endure a dangerous trip through the Amazon Rainforest, Peru, Ecuador and Columbia, relying on smugglers to reach the Darién Gap, a treacherous region in Panama.
The Darién Gap is a roadless, mountainous jungle infested with criminals, wild animals, swamps and fast rivers known to sweep away people who attempt to cross them. Yet it’s the only place for migrants attempting to reach the United States, because most other routes are shut off by authorities. According to Panama’s immigration authority, more than 3,600 refugees from Afghanistan have crossed the Darien jungle since the Taliban takeover in August 2021, trying to reach the United States.
Once through, the dangerous journey continues through Central America to Mexico. Refugees are often caught in unforgiving circumstances, with both thieves and police threatening them with violence, arrest and more, unless they can come up with bribe money to pay them off.
Even if a refugee reaches the border, many have been put on a bus that returns them to Mexico. Sometimes Mexico sends them back to Honduras. Nearly all make further attempts to reach the United States. Most wind up in detention centers. Families are split up.
Eventually, most succeed. To remain poses legal challenges with no readily available information on how to resolve them. Charities, such as Women for Afghan Women, offer free legal assistance, housing, food, clothing. It’s the first step in a very long process that may or might not result in permanent resident status.
Roughly 52,000 Afghans have applied for humanitarian parole, but as of April 2023 only 760 people have been approved. These are people who applied while living in Afghanistan, or reached the United States through other means. Those who immigrated illegally through the southern border and declared asylum face a different process known as defensive asylum. One must fill an application to an immigration judge at the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) to defend one’s reasons for coming to America. There are no guarantees one will be granted asylum, and being deported is a real possibility.
You may wonder why a person would subject themselves to such extremes. Ask anyone who’s experienced what Afghan refugees left behind – the ability to earn a living, extreme hunger and poverty, the very real threats to one’s life, among other unimaginable things. They will tell you it was all to grasp their version of an American dream.
Blog written by Gretchen Weerheim, Women for Afghan Women