Thousands of Afghan families who were selected for US visas are stuck in the war-torn country, as the US government’s failure to schedule their visa interviews ahead of a final deadline puts them at risk of missing their opportunity to leave.
If a US judge does not intervene by 30 September, more than 2,100 Afghans who were selected for the diversity visa program last year will become ineligible for such a visa.
The program annually awards green cards through a lottery to applicants from countries with lower immigration rates. The US state department is responsible for interviewing winners and granting visas by 30 September, the end of the fiscal year, but due to a suspension of the program and large backlogs during the pandemic, the US embassy in Kabul did not conduct interviews in the months leading up to the US withdrawal. When the embassy shut down in August, the lottery winners were left with virtually no pathway to get their cases approved.
Some Afghan families have sued the Biden administration in hopes of extending the deadline beyond September. In the meantime, some applicants say they face grave danger as the security situation in the country has deteriorated. Others are growing increasingly desperate over what lies ahead for their families under Taliban rule.
“[It feels as if] no one cares about us, and every day [the situation] is getting worse,” said Abdul, a 34-year-old father of two, in a phone interview from Kabul. (The Guardian is withholding last names out of security concerns.)
Abdul was selected for a diversity visa in June 2020, but never got invited for an interview. He said his hope to make it to the US was diminishing in the final week before the deadline. “We are left behind.”
‘It was a dream come true’
The visa lottery program, which was established in 1990, offers a pathway to the US that is separate from other visa programs that are based on family sponsorship and employment. It has minimal eligibility requirements (high school education or two years work experience) and attracts millions of applicants across the world.
Last year, 60,000 Afghans entered the lottery, which globally gives out up to 55,000 green cards each year. Of the Afghan applicants for the 2020-21 fiscal year, 2,189 were selected.
Selected candidates aren’t guaranteed a visa – applicants need to pass security screenings and an interview – but Afghans who made the draw said it felt akin to winning a million-dollar lottery.
“I felt like God had given me the chance I needed,” said Abdul.
One of Abdul’s children, his four-year-old son, has autism and there are few services available for him in his home country, he said. Moving to the US would allow his son to get the support he needed, he said: “My dream is to come to America for my baby.”
Abdul was previously employed by a logistics and supply company that worked with the US government. In 2016, he had applied for a special visa based on his service for the US and the dangers he faced as a result. The US embassy decided that he qualified, records show, but later denied him a visa, claiming he didn’t have enough supporting documents. Learning his name was drawn in the diversity lottery presented an unexpected glimmer of hope, he said.
“I helped [the US government], and I want them to save my family’s life,” he said, adding, “Now, I have no hope for my life anymore, I don’t know what to do.”
Maryam, 30, who has two children, ages five and six, said winning the lottery last year was “like a dream come true”. “I knew that this is the best country for our children. I want to guarantee a better life for them.” She had applied several times before.
In a call from a city in northern Afghanistan, speaking Farsi through a translator, she said she would often lie awake imagining her life in the US. Maryam’s family are Shia, a religious minority that has been a target of violent attacks by the Islamic State in recent years, and she said she has family in California. After the Taliban takeover, her family was displaced from their home, she said. She sent the Guardian photos of her children sleeping in a stairwell where she said they are temporarily living.
Lottery winners from a wide range of backgrounds – journalists, former government workers, medical professionals, students, consultants – told the Guardian over the past week that they felt their future in the country had dimmed since the Taliban takeover and that they’ve never felt as uncertain about their prospects of making it out.
The trouble for visa applicants, however, did not begin with this summer’s turmoil, but started last year when the Trump administration took aggressive steps to halt immigration to the US.
Pandemic shutdowns: ‘They’re ignoring us’
From the start of his presidency, Trump worked to dismantle longstanding mechanisms of legal admission to the US, including the travel ban on Muslim-majority countries and repeated attempts to shut down the visa lottery.
The pandemic brought about an opportunity. Visa applications slowed as embassies were forced to close their doors due to Covid-19 concerns. Meanwhile, Trump, claiming he was protecting American jobs and stopping the spread of the virus, also issued an order to freeze diversity visas.
On 31 August 2020, Maryam received an email from a US consular center that said: “Congratulations! Our records indicate that you have submitted all documentation required … and are ready to be scheduled for an interview.” The next paragraph said: “Interviews for the DV 2020 program are currently suspended,” adding that all interviews “must be concluded by September 30, 2021”.
“We did everything that was required. The last part we needed was the interview,” she said.
Lawsuits brought by lottery winners from around the world forced the US to resume the program last September, with a judge ruling that the administration could not “effectively extinguish the diversity program” by letting all pending cases expire.
But when the program restarted, US embassies and consulates began to process applicants from the previous year, and amid significant backlogs, did not move forward with 2021 cases. “You can do a lot of damage by creating these long lines and making the system just completely nonfunctional,” said Carly Goodman, an immigration historian writing a book on the lottery.
The impact was severe in Afghanistan, where residents were bracing for the US withdrawal.
‘Biden can make this right’
Lawyers representing lottery winners said that even after the Biden administration took over after Trump’s election defeat, visa lottery hopefuls didn’t get interviews and the embassy instead prioritized Afghans who had worked with the US military.
US statistics show that Kabul did not process a single diversity visa application through the end of July, the latest available data.
Since the rushed evacuations, which also left behind many Afghans who had worked for the US and other vulnerable members of civil society, the diversity visa candidates’ hope of an interview have largely vanished.
“I keep emailing, but they’re not responding,” said Mohammad, a 22-year-old student at the American University of Afghanistan, who won the lottery last year. He fears if the new regime discovers he was affiliated with the university, which recently shut down, he could be killed. Some of his classmates were evacuated, but he didn’t make it out: “I have no life left here,” he said.
Rafael Ureña, an immigration attorney representing 40 Afghans in a lawsuit against the US over diversity visas, said that with the US embassy in Kabul closed, US officials have not designated a specific post in a third country where Afghan applicants could be interviewed instead. Records show a lawyer for the state department suggested to Ureña’s office that it would schedule interviews only for Afghans who were already in third countries.
The US embassy in Islamabad recently emailed one of Ureña’s clients to say it could not approve a transfer request unless applicants were living in Pakistan, adding: “We have not been designated a processing post for immigrant or diversity visas for Afghans.”
A state department spokesperson told the Guardian that if Afghans can travel to a processing post outside the country, they can request a case transfer, but added, “We recognize it is currently extremely difficult for Afghans to obtain a visa to a third country or find a way to enter a third country.”
The state department was “developing processing alternatives so that we can continue to deliver this important service for the people of Afghanistan”, the spokesperson said, but added that it was unable to process visas in a country that no longer had an embassy.
“The department made every effort to process as many diversity visa cases as possible, consistent with other priorities, despite the severe operational constraints and backlog resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic,” the statement said.
Ureña said the state department under both administrations has abdicated its duty to adjudicate diversity visa applications.
He added: “Biden campaigned on this idea that the Trump administration was acting unlawfully and treating immigrants badly, but when his administration has an opportunity to make things right, they refuse.”
Ureña is hoping that the federal judge in his case, who last year restarted diversity visas, will order the US to in effect preserve his plaintiffs’ visas beyond 30 September. A hearing is scheduled for 27 September, but even if a judge extends the process, it will probably apply only to the 40 plaintiffs who have joined the case.
‘Please help us’
Mohammad, a 28-year-old diversity lottery winner, has emailed senators, Congress members and others in the US requesting help to be evacuated and to have his and other lottery winners’ applications processed elsewhere. Some staffers have forwarded his requests to the state department, but he has heard nothing further.
“We have less than 10 days, and we don’t know what our situation will be after that,” he said.
Tawfeequllah, a 30-year-old lottery winner who has three daughters, said he can’t get a visa to go to another country for an interview and has few options left.
Asked what message he would want to send to the state department, Tawfeequllah said, “Please help us, please help us, please help us.”