SACRAMENTO COUNTY, Calif — On Aug. 30, 2021, the wheels of the final United States military forces planes lifted up.
This significant moment marked the end of a twenty year-long war. But rather than rejoice, thousands of panicked and desperate Afghans were attempting to flee their country.
The same chaos had been felt for the last few weeks as the U.S. withdrew in synchronicity with the Taliban swiftly regaining power.
The world watched as crowds ascended upon the Kabul airport. Borders into neighboring countries were swarmed. Families were separated as some were able to leave and others remained.
While headlines have grown quiet in the months since, one Northern California family has not.
"Put yourselves in our shoes for God's sake! Your family is in danger because of the work your father did for this country," said Joe. "And now this country is not helping your family?!"
Despite months of paperwork and pleas, around 40 of Joe's family members remain in hiding in Afghanistan.
Out of fear of the Taliban killing these family members in retaliation for seeing him talk with an American journalist, ABC10 has protected his identity in this report and given him the pseudonym name "Joe."
"The biggest concern is if somebody rats out where they're at... because (the Taliban) will go there in a heartbeat," said Joe. "Think about it, the Taliban is one of the strongest criminal organizations you can think of... (My family) is scared every day. They're walking on eggshells every day. One little crack is all it takes."
Joe's father worked as a cultural advisor and translator with the U.S. troops for over a decade. It's been no easy gig.
"He got shot and almost blown up saving four or five American soldiers," said Joe.
Joe's father received an award for his bravery in the line of duty, but perhaps his biggest sacrifice was the target his job put on his family's back.
"Before he even accepted the job, he let them know, 'Hey, if my family in Afghanistan is in trouble because of me... because I work with you guys, can you help them?' And they said, 'Yes. Of course.'"
It was a promise unkept.
While Joe's immediate family resides in Northern California, extended family members - including Joe's fiancé - are trapped in what has become a critically dangerous situation, especially because they all assisted the United States. This includes their work with the American Red Cross and military aid.
"All those 40 applicants, all the adults there worked with the U.S. in some way or form," said Joe.
Documents provided to ABC10 show Joe started the application process for his family members nearly a year before the U.S. fully pulled out of Afghanistan.
"They were already so deep into the visa process because of how early we filed," said Joe.
But when chaos arose in Afghanistan amid America's withdrawal, all progress and communication for their applications went silent, including an interview scheduled for his fiancé - one of the final steps in the process of attaining her visa.
"Everyone is so frickin' quiet," said Joe. "Nobody wants to talk."
He's not alone.
The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) said they normally receive around 2,000 Humanitarian Parole Applications each year. Of those, between 500 to 700 are approved.
Since July 1, 2021 they said they've received more than 40,000 applications filed nationwide.
930 have been denied. 160 have been conditionally approved, USCIS told ABC10 in an email on Jan. 31, 2022.
That means that less than half a percent, specifically 0.4%, have been approved.
Meanwhile, thousands fearful for their lives are left waiting.
"I started filing in early September and haven't heard back on those," said Hannah Bichkoff.
Bichkoff is a volunteer with the organization NorCal Resist.
"NorCal Resist is really based on the principles of working in collaboration with communities to address whatever needs are presenting," said Bichkoff.
Her team has helped file hundreds of applications for Afghans in Northern California. Sacramento is home to one of the largest Afghan populations in the country, if not the largest for Afghan refugees. Bichkoff is helping many who recently arrived with Special Immigration Visas (SIV) and are now seeking humanitarian parole for family members left behind.
"There's quite a large community of individuals there that might've not been able to leave when the U.S. left or prior and are newly targeted," said Bichkoff. "Or targeted in an ongoing way because of their relationships with their family members here."
Filing these types of applications is no easy task.
"They're incredibly complex applications. There are various steps," Bichkoff said.
Steps tricky for anyone, especially for someone whose first language isn't English and is trying to navigate the United States' complex immigration system.
"Each application costs $575," said Bichkoff. "Now, imagine that for an immigrant family who has just moved here."
That's $575 per applicant. For someone like Joe trying to get 40 family members here, that estimates to $23,000.
With that, there's no guarantee your application will be accepted. If we estimate cost of the 40,000 applications the USCIS said they've received, it means with these applications they've also received $23 million.
And 930 have been denied. That's $534,750 USCIS has pocketed for applications they've denied so far.
But for the 38,000-plus, they've simply paid and prayed with no answer.
"What we'll see is 'Your case is received,' and sometimes, 'Your fee waiver is approved,'" said Bichkoff. "Other than that there's been nothing."
For months, there's been no response to any of Bichkoff's applications she has filed... until Jan. 10, four months after filing.
"I got my first set of denials last week," said Bichkoff during our interview.
The denials were for a family that she said had a strong application as they had thorough documentation as well as true concern for their family. Something that isn't common or easy to have for many that sought refuge.
"They fled their house in Afghanistan because Taliban came to their door and said, 'We're going to kill you,'" said Bichkoff.
USCIS require proof applicants lives are severely at risk. In the denial, USCIS said the family lacked "documentation from a credible third-party source specifically naming the beneficiary and outlining the serious harm they face" as well as evidence "of the beneficiary's particular vulnerabilities" and evidence "of the severity and imminence of the harm the beneficiary fears."
"(They were still denied) even though we provided every single document and a declaration explaining this," said Bichkoff. "It really begs the question if you're fleeing for your life, what type of documentation are you even going to have to show that your life is at risk? It's a very unrealistic expectation."
Bichkoff wonders if this family, with proper documentation, was denied - what kind of chance do others have?
"We're seeing this program really fail Afghans who were the folks who stepped forward to back and support the U.S. government," said Bichkoff. "The stakes are really, really high. I think it's important for politicians to know that because they do have the ability to intervene on these particular cases. It's just a really inhumane response to people that in a very real sense have died waiting for these applications to process."
It's the same concern that has lit a fire underneath Joe, especially in regards to the little response he's received from elected leaders.
"It's one of those things that really frustrated me a lot. Like what the hell are you guys doing?! Why are you guys in these positions?! Why are you in power?!" said Joe.
Joe provided ABC10 with his applications and correspondence to government offices. Few of his emails have been returned.
The miniscule emails he has received back were generic responses, often directing him to fill out forms he already had.
One of the few responses he got back from a representative's employee was from Congressman Jim Costa, simply saying his request was sent to the special unit for Afghan refugees.
Now, Joe has a strong message for them: "Do the right thing, like you promised us you'd do and help get my family over here."
ABC10 reached out to a number of leaders for comment. Representative Ami Bera provided the following statement:
"I am frustrated by the slow pace in which we are processing applications for Afghan refugees seeking humanitarian parole. We cannot let bureaucratic red tape get in the way of safely relocating Afghan refugees."
Congressman Jim Costa provided the following statement:
"The delays for Afghans seeking humanitarian visas are extremely concerning, which is why I am actively taking steps with other members of the House to urge multiple federal agencies to make changes that would expedite this application process. It is crucial we ensure our Afghan allies fleeing the oppressive regime of the Taliban can resettle in a safer environment as quick and safely as possible."