After the Taliban took control of Afghanistan following the United States removal of its remaining troops in August 2021, tens of thousands of Afghans, many of whom were U.S. allies, fled to the United States under a temporary refugee status.
With their status set to expire in the coming months, Afghan refugees in the Bay Area now face uncertainty. Berkeley Law’s Asylum Law Practicum paired its students with several of these individuals to assist refugees in navigating the convoluted and backlogged process that is the American asylum system, according to Kyra Lilien, the practicum’s instructor.
Lilien is also director of immigration legal services program at Jewish Family and Community Services, or JFCS, East Bay, one of the two resettlement agencies working with the hundreds of Bay Area Afghan refugees.
Refugees fortunate enough to escape were placed in the East Bay through one of two resettlement agencies that worked to house them with or near community members who already had established roots in the area, according to Lilien.
“Because of the last minute nature of the evacuation, it was a humanitarian crisis,” Lilien said. “Whereas usually resettlement agencies resettle people who have refugee status, they were given temporary permission to enter the United States. They entered on parole, and their parole is only valid for two years.”
Lilien noted the term “refugee” is a permanent legal status that does not expire, as it streamlines a path to citizenship on the grounds that they have a “well-founded fear” of persecution.
However, many Afghan refugees’ parole statuses are set to expire around August, leaving those who have yet to receive asylum in a tricky legal limbo, according to Lilien. Once parole status expires, refugees lose their work permits, benefits eligibility and become vulnerable to removal from the country entirely.
Noticing this dire need for legal expertise, Lilien — who had been teaching a refugee law course at Berkeley Law for years — proposed the practicum to have students put their skills to work and advocate for the Afghan refugees.
“We looked at their documents beforehand, their stories, the application materials for their initial parolee application, and then we would talk to them learn more about their current situation in the (United States) and try to establish a grounds that would establish a fear of future persecution if they were to return to Afghanistan to help them claim asylum status here in the (United States),” said Muhammad Yusuf Tarr, a Berkeley Law student enrolled in the practicum.
The practicum assigned its nine students to seven JFCS cases, with some students working together to assist entire families, according to Tarr.
Prior to the crisis, JFCS had no asylum program to assist with their barrage of cases. Lilien said leveraging the power of her practicum students to assist with these cases has been extremely beneficial to the agency’s work.
Despite a congressional dispensation in October 2021 that provided additional funding to the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services, or USCIS, to prioritize Afghan asylum applications, Lilien noted the waiting times for an asylum interview can take up to six months. For non-Afghan refugees, she added, the wait for the interview can take upwards of five years.
“Where we are right now is that we, based on the work that the students did over the course of this semester, have been able to apply for asylum for these clients, but we’re waiting for USCIS to schedule their interviews,” Lillien said. “Now we wait.”