Sunday, December 5

Last year 2,100 Afghans won the visa lottery. Their hopes of reaching the United States are diminishing | Afghanistan

TThousands of Afghan families who were selected for U.S. visas are trapped in the war-torn country, as the failure of the U.S. government to schedule their visa interviews before the final deadline puts them in risk of losing the opportunity to leave.

If a US judge does not intervene by September 30, more than 2,100 Afghans who were selected for the diversity visa program last year will no longer be eligible 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 before September 30, the end of the fiscal year, but due to the suspension of the program and long delays during the pandemic, the US embassy He did not conduct interviews in Kabul in the months leading up to the US withdrawal.When the embassy closed in August, lottery winners were left with virtually no way to approve their cases.

Some Afghan families have sued the Biden government in hopes of extending the deadline beyond September. Meanwhile, some applicants say they face grave danger as the security situation in the country has deteriorated. Others are increasingly desperate for what awaits their families under Taliban rule.

“[It feels as if] nobody cares about us, and every day [the situation] it’s getting worse, ”Abdul, a 34-year-old father of two, said in a telephone interview from Kabul. (The Guardian is hiding the last names for security reasons.)

Abdul was selected for a diversity visa in June 2020, but was never invited for an interview. He said his hope of reaching the United States was dwindling in the last 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 path to the United States that is separate from other visa programs that are based on family sponsorship and employment. It has minimum eligibility requirements (high school education or two years of work experience) and attracts millions of applicants around the world.

Last year, 60,000 Afghans participated in the lottery, which awards up to 55,000 green cards worldwide each year. Of the Afghan applicants for the 2020-21 fiscal year, 2,189 were selected.

Successful candidates are not guaranteed a visa (applicants must pass security checks and an interview), but Afghans who participated in the draw said it felt like they won a million-dollar lottery.

An Afghan has his family's passports.  The visa lottery program offers a path to the US with minimal eligibility requirements.
An Afghan has his family’s passports. The visa lottery program offers a path to the US with minimal eligibility requirements. Photograph: Callaghan O’Hare / Reuters

“I felt that God had given me the opportunity I needed,” Abdul said.

One of Abdul’s children, his four-year-old son, has autism and few services are available to him in his home country, he said. Moving to the United States would allow her son to get the support he needed, she said, “My dream is to come to the United States for my baby.”

Abdul was previously employed by a logistics and supply company that worked with the United States government. In 2016, he had applied for a special visa based on his service to the US and the dangers he faced as a result. The U.S. embassy decided that he qualified, records show, but later denied him a visa, claiming he did not have enough supporting documents. Knowing that her name was drawn in the diversity lottery presented an unexpected ray of hope, she said.

“Help [the US government], and I want them to save my family’s life, “he said, adding:” Now, I no longer have any hope for my life, 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 them a better life ”. She had been applied several times before.

In a call from a city in northern Afghanistan, speaking Farsi through a translator, she said she often stayed awake imagining her life in the United States. Maryam’s family is Shiite, a religious minority that has been the target of violent attacks by the Islamic State in recent years, and she said she has a family in California. After the Taliban takeover, his family was displaced from their home, he said. She sent the Guardian photos of her children sleeping on a staircase 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 been clouded since they took office. Taliban power and never felt. so unsure about his prospects of achieving it.

However, the problem for visa applicants did not start with the turmoil this summer, but began last year when the Trump administration took aggressive steps to stop immigration to the United States.

Pandemic closures: ‘They’re ignoring us’

From the beginning of his presidency, Trump worked to dismantle long-standing legal admission mechanisms to the U.S., including a travel ban to Muslim-majority countries and repeated attempts to shut down the visa lottery.

The pandemic brought with it an opportunity. Visa applications slowed down 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 August 31, 2020, Maryam received an email from a US consular center that read: “Congratulations! Our records indicate that you have submitted all required documentation … and are ready to schedule an interview. “The next paragraph read,” Interviews for the DV 2020 program are currently on hold, “adding that all interviews” must be concluded sooner. September 30, 2021 “.

“We did everything necessary. The last part we needed was the interview, ”he said.

Lawsuits filed by lottery winners around the world forced The United States will resume the program last September, with a judge decision that the administration could not “effectively terminate the diversity program” by allowing all pending cases to expire.

But when the program was restarted, US embassies and consulates began processing applicants from the previous year and, amid significant delays, failed to move forward with the 2021 cases. ranks and making the system just not work, ”said Carly Goodman, an immigration historian who writes a book on the lottery.

The impact was severe in Afghanistan, where residents were preparing for a US withdrawal.

‘Biden can do this well’

Lawyers representing lottery winners said that even after the Biden administration came to power after Trump’s electoral defeat, visa lottery hopefuls did not get interviews and the embassy gave priority to Afghans who had worked with the US military.

US statistics show that Kabul did not process a single diversity visa application until the end of July, the latest data available.

Since the hasty evacuations, which also left behind many Afghans who had worked for the United States and other vulnerable members of civil society, hope for an interview of diversity visa candidates has largely faded.

“I keep sending emails, but they don’t respond,” said Mohammad, a 22-year-old student at the American University of Afghanistan, who won the lottery last year. He fears that if the new regime finds out he was affiliated with the university, which recently closed, he could be killed. Some of his companions were evacuated, but he could not get out: “I have no life left here,” he said.

Rafael Ureña, an immigration attorney representing 40 Afghans in a lawsuit against the United States over diversity visas, said that with the U.S. embassy in Kabul closed, U.S. officials have not designated a specific position in a third country where the Afghan applicants can be interviewed. Records show that a State Department attorney suggested to Ureña’s office that it would schedule interviews only for Afghans already in third countries.

The US embassy in Islamabad recently emailed one of Ureña’s clients to tell him that it could not approve a transfer request unless the applicants were living in Pakistan, adding: “We have not been assigned a position. processing for immigrant or diversity visas for Afghans “.

A spokesperson for the state department 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 that it is currently extremely difficult for Afghans to obtain a visa for a third country or find a way to enter a third country “.

The interior of the visa center of the United States Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan.
The interior of the visa center of the United States Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. Photograph: Mariam Zuhaib / AP

The state department was “developing processing alternatives so that we can continue to provide this important service to the people of Afghanistan,” the spokesman said, but added that it could not 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 severe operational limitations and the 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 the idea that the Trump administration was acting illegally and mistreating immigrants, but when his administration has the opportunity to do things right, they refuse.”

Ureña hopes that the federal judge in her case, which last year restarted diversity visas, will order the United States to actually keep the visas of its plaintiffs beyond Sept. 30. The hearing is scheduled for September 27, but even if a judge extends the process, it will likely only apply to the 40 plaintiffs who have joined the case.

‘Please help us’

Mohammad, a 28-year-old diversity lottery winner, has sent emails to senators, members of Congress, and others in the U.S. requesting help in being evacuated and having his applications processed and those of other winners of the lottery elsewhere. Some staff members have forwarded their requests to the state department, but he has not heard anything else.

“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 cannot get a visa to go to another country for an interview and has few options left.

When asked what message he would like to send to the state department, Tawfeequllah said, “Please help us, help us, help us.”

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