As recently as last week, the U.S. immigration service was using six officers to process about 14,000 humanitarian requests for Afghans seeking relocation to the United States following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August.
That's what the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services told congressional staff, Congressman Jim Langevin, a Democrat from Rhode Island, said Thursday during a House Homeland Security Committee meeting.
"I want to say that again: 14,000 humanitarian parole applications with just six officers," Langevin said. "That is completely and utterly unacceptable, and I call on USCIS to address the shortcoming immediately."
The number has continued to surge in recent days, with the agency receiving nearly 20,000 such requests as of Friday, more than 10 times the number of humanitarian applications submitted from around the world in a typical year, according to a USCIS official.
Humanitarian parole is special permission given to foreigners to enter the United States under emergency circumstances. While it does not automatically lead to permanent residence, "parolees" can apply for legal status once they're in the U.S.
The majority of the humanitarian requests have been filed by Afghan Americans on behalf of relatives seeking to flee Taliban rule.
The U.S. led the evacuation of more than 124,000 civilians, mostly vulnerable Afghans, in August, but tens of thousands of others were left behind.
For many at-risk Afghan civilians with no direct ties to the U.S. military or government, humanitarian parole is the only option of finding safety in the United States.
A spokesman for Langevin told VOA that the information about the USCIS humanitarian parole backlog came during an October 12 agency briefing for congressional staff.
Asked about Langevin's criticism of the backlog, the USCIS official said the agency is assigning additional staff to address the workload.
"USCIS issued an agencywide request for volunteers to help process applications for humanitarian and significant public benefit parole and the agency will have significantly more staff assigned to this workload in the coming weeks," the official said.
The deluge of applications has nonetheless overwhelmed the immigration service.
Afghan American lawyer Wogai Mohmand said the number of Afghan humanitarian parole requests could reach as high as 150,000 in a year.
"Their systems are not equipped to deal with that kind of volume," Mohmand said during a recent webinar hosted by several advocacy organizations. "Frankly, they don’t have enough staff to look at all those applications."
Assigning more officers to the humanitarian parole cases alone can't help anyone get out of Afghanistan, according to Sunil Varghese, policy director for the International Refugee Assistance Project.
Before parolees are admitted into the U.S., Varghese said, their fingerprints must be taken, identifies verified and travel documents issued by the U.S. embassy.
But the U.S. embassy in Kabul shut down at the end of August and moved to Doha, Qatar. This means that although Afghans can apply for humanitarian parole while still in the country, once they receive pre-approval, they're required to travel to a third country for vetting at a U.S. consulate.
If they do make it through the process, "the Department of State issues a boarding letter for the applicant to take a commercial carrier, at their own expense, to the United States," the official explained.
With foreign visas hard to come by and regular commercial flights yet to resume, traveling to a third country for screening is not an option for most Afghans, according to advocates.
Even in the best of circumstances, the difficulty many Afghans face in reaching a U.S. consulate abroad has had undesirable consequences. Take the case of Fatima Khashee. As security deteriorated in July, the 61-year-old's son, a U.S. permanent resident, filed a humanitarian parole request on her behalf.
In her case, USCIS acted fairly quickly, approving her application within 20 days on August 24, according to her son, who requested that he not be identified by name.
But by then the Taliban had overrun the country. The embassy, having relocated to the Kabul international airport, transferred her case to Turkey. And by the time she made it to Istanbul 30 days later, her parole authorization had expired.
"It wasn’t my mother’s fault that her parole was expired," the son said in a message to VOA. "She paid triple of regular price to get [the] first flights [that] became available out of Afghanistan. She tried every possible channel to get out sooner, but all land borders and airlines were closed."
One month later, Khashee remains stuck at an Istanbul hotel, waiting for what her son describes as a long overdue, updated parole reauthorization.
"That is unbelievable and very disappointing," he said of the six officers adjudicating 14,000 applications.
It costs $575 to apply for humanitarian parole, a figure that adds up to several thousand dollars for a family of six and that some members of Congress want to see waived.
Despite the cost and uncertainty over their approval, however, humanitarian parole requests for Afghan citizens continue to flood in.
"First, they don’t have any other options available," Khashee’s son said. "Secondly, they are all still hopeful that the USCIS approves their cases considering the situation in Afghanistan. Most of them are not aware how hard it is to be approved for humanitarian parole."
The USCIS official did not respond to questions about whether the agency has approved any Afghan humanitarian parole requests and how long it would take the agency to clear the backlog.