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Millions of Afghans in limbo as U.S. Immigration responds to Ukraine in record time

Fear lingers in a Del Paso Heights home as family members left behind in Afghanistan hide from the Taliban, who continue to try tracking them down.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — In a Del Paso Heights home, Afghanistan isn't a forgotten headline or a country in a crisis a world away; it's a constant presence.

"Like these video(s), every day he sends," said Sara as she brought up her phone. "This is their house... those are the Taliban."

The video shot from a window a story or two above a building entrance shows members of the Taliban standing with guns.

It's a familiar sight for Sara. She gets these types of videos every day from her brother as the Taliban searches for him.

He, as well as Sara's mother, sister-in-law and niece are all in hiding in Afghanistan because her brother spent the last 10 years working for U.S. troops as a driver and translator.

"Three, four times they (the Taliban) tried to kill my brother," Sara said.

Out of concern of retaliation, she asked us to hide her identity. ABC10 has given her the pseudonym name, Sara.

Sara was born and raised in Afghanistan and graduated from high school when women were allowed to gain an education during the U.S. occupation.

In 2017, Sara and her husband immigrated from Afghanistan to Sacramento by way of a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) due to her husband's work with U.S. Forces. She assumed the same would happen for the rest of her family as her father and brother also worked with the U.S., but tragedy struck.

"My father worked in the Ministry of Finance in Afghanistan," said Sara. "The Taliban killed him in 2018."

Graphic images Sara provided to ABC10 showed the aftermath of her father killed on his way to work. He appears to have been stabbed to death with his body left on the side of the road.

Sara is scared the same thing that happened to her father will happen to the rest of her family who are still there.

That's why, after his death, her family decided to flee Afghanistan on foot illegally, walking a 1,400 mile, two-week journey in freezing mountainous winter conditions from Afghanistan to Iran to Turkey.

"For two weeks, they didn't have any food," said Sara. "Nothing to eat."

When they arrived at the Turkish border, they were refused entry and were forced to turn back, making the same journey and returning to chaos as the United States withdrew and Taliban swiftly took over. 

In their last effort to escape, her sisters went to the Kabul airport and were able to board American military planes. They've since been reunited with Sara in Sacramento, helping her take care of her two sons - and have been granted humanitarian parole.

RELATED: In Afghanistan, she risked her life for an education. He was endangered as a translator — Now, they're sharing their journey to the U.S.

Other Afghans that made it to the United States were given Temporary Protected Status (TPS) on March 15.

"The President has the authority to designate specific groups of people (Temporary Protected Status), usually based on nationality that are considered to be facing collective harm," said UC Davis Professor Raquel Aldana, who is also an immigration and human rights attorney and expert.

Temporary Protected Status is only for those already on American soil -- it allows them to stay, live and work, for a limited period of time -- typically 18 months.

Despite the U.S. fully withdrawing from Afghanistan in August 2021, protected status for Afghans came 12 days after Ukrainians were offered refugee protections following the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022.

"Well, I think it's really gratifying to see a different response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis," Aldana said, "because it's important to understand the status quo of the refugee situation was already, frankly, broken."

She believes the United States' response to Ukraine could lead to innovations to an already broken system for refugees.

There are nearly 27 million displaced refugees in the world with fewer than 1% permanently resettling, Aldana said.

The U.S. taking quick action in granting Ukraine protected status helps change the status quo.

"But it raises questions for me about what to do with pre-existing refugee situations that are still ongoing," said Aldana. "So, the Ukrainian displacement has been the fastest, but it's not the largest."

Aldana said the three top refugee communities in the world include Syrians, Venezuelans and Afghans.

"Our response to Ukrainians should help us reflect on what we should do for other communities that are also facing severe human rights concerns and experiences," Aldana said.

RELATED: 'I would've been in grave danger' | State department puts hold on bringing Afghan refugees to Sacramento amid housing crisis

She estimates protected status will be granted to 74,000 Ukrainians and around the same for Afghans, so 148,000 between the two groups -- not including those under other visas.

Unlike Humanitarian Parole, Temporary Protected Status applications are simpler and faster.

"So, I think that's a huge advantage," Aldana said.

However, the disadvantage is for those not yet in the United States.

"One of the complexities is that TPS doesn't help the people left behind directly," Aldana said.

That includes people like Sara's brother. Unlike his sisters, he didn't have a choice to go to the chaotic Kabul airport as his daughter has a disability and their mother recently underwent surgery at that time.

That's why Sara filed for Humanitarian Parole for her remaining family members there.

"We have all the proof (he worked with the U.S.)," said Sara. "All the paperwork."

Sara said each application took over a week to prepare as well as the experts they had look them over. When it was ready, the price was hefty; it costs $575 to file a single Humanitarian Parole application.

According to the United States Customs and Immigration Service (USCIS), since July 2021, they've received more than 44,500 requests for Humanitarian Parole from Afghan nationals.

That's more than $25.5 million they've collected in application fees.

As of March 2022, they've denied approximately 2,250 -- while approving only 200. 

That means USCIS has made nearly $1.3 million in denying Afghans Humanitarian Parole applications, while approving less than half a percent - specifically 0.45%.

"(We paid) more than $3,000," said Sara. "We paid for more than five people."

The application fee for Sara's family was expensive, but since filing nearly six months ago, the only response has been a letter saying it's been processed.

"I don't know why they don't respond... why they are quiet," said Sara. "It's like they don't care about those applications."

However, bureaucratic red tape isn't going to stop Sara's efforts.

"I will keep fighting with my brother's application because he really (served) for a long time with the United States but he still lives in Afghanistan," said Sara. "They left behind people that really worked for them."

MORE FROM ABC10 ORIGINALS: "Put yourselves in our shoes for God's sake! Your family is in danger because of the work your father did for this country... and now this country is not helping?!"  A Sacramento man worries the Taliban will get to his family before they can be brought to the U.S. 

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