The Biden administration quietly expanded eligibility rules for immigrants requesting humanitarian entry into the U.S. amid mounting criticism over the rejection of thousands of applications from Afghans seeking refuge from the Taliban, internal government guidance and training materials obtained by CBS News show.

The policy changes, implemented internally this spring, concern a decades-old legal authority called parole that allows U.S. immigration officials to authorize immigrants who don’t have visas to enter the country if they have urgent humanitarian needs or if their arrival furthers a “significant public benefit.” 

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agency that oversees the legal immigration system, typically receives about 2,000 parole requests from immigrants abroad per year. But the number of parole applications spiked dramatically after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in August 2021. 

Tens of thousands of Afghans, many of whom were not able to enter Kabul’s airport in time to be evacuated by the U.S. last summer, filed parole applications. They include Afghans who assisted U.S. forces, their relatives, former Afghan government employees, members of the long-persecuted Hazara ethnic group and others who believe they could face Taliban persecution.

Between July 2021 and earlier this month, USCIS received over 46,000 parole applications from Afghans overseas. But as of June 2, it had adjudicated fewer than 5,000 applications and denied 93% of them, CBS News reported earlier this month. More than 40,000 parole requests from Afghans remain unresolved. 

Multiple USCIS parole denials reviewed by CBS News said Afghan applicants had failed to show they were at risk of “severe targeted or individualized harm” or “imminent return to a country where the beneficiary would be harmed.”

The extremely high denial rate, and the massive backlog of unresolved cases, elicited withering criticism from some Democratic lawmakers and refugee advocates, who accused U.S. officials of relying on a narrow interpretation of the parole authority to unjustly deny requests from desperate Afghans.

Advocates also juxtaposed the high denials with the Biden administration’s broad use of the parole authority to admit other populations, including Ukrainians displaced by Russia’s invasion of their homeland and more than 70,000 Afghans who managed to get evacuated and resettled by the U.S. last year.

The internal USCIS guidance obtained by CBS News shows the agency expanded humanitarian parole eligibility to include those who can prove to be a member of a “targeted group” that has faced “widespread, systematic, or pervasive” attacks. Members in a targeted group must face threats of “serious harm,” which could include physical or psychological injury or death, the guidance said.

Before the changes, humanitarian parole applicants were instructed to submit third-party evidence that specifically named them as targets of serious harm.

The revised guidance to USCIS adjudicators said this proof “still remains the preferred evidence,” but expanded other forms of “strong evidence” to include country condition reports that show the targeting of a group; evidence that the applicant belongs to that group; and proof that potential persecutors are aware or will likely learn of the applicant’s membership in said group. 

“Isolated incidents of harm to other group members will generally not be sufficient,” the guidance said.

For applications from individuals in third countries, the guidance instructs adjudicators to consider an applicant’s lack of access to internal protection programs; risk of facing serious harm there; the possibility of their deportation to a place where they could be harmed; and their living conditions and legal status.

USCIS confirmed the policy changes in a statement to CBS News, saying they were the result of an internal agency review of the humanitarian parole process.

“USCIS issued revised guidance to adjudicators on the types of evidence we consider relevant in evaluating parole requests based primarily on protection from individualized or targeted harm,” the agency said. “With the significant influx in new parole requests based primarily on protection needs following the Afghan humanitarian crisis, USCIS decided that a review of our policies was appropriate.”

The policy changes implemented by USCIS could benefit some of the tens of thousands of Afghans who have pending parole cases, as well as future applicants. But immigration attorneys said the impact of the rules will depend on how the adjudicators enforce them and whether they reduce the high denial rate.

“At face value, it sounds like it could potentially be beneficial. We just have to see how it’s actually implemented and adjudicated,” said Karlyn Kurichety, the legal director at Al Otro Lado, a California-based advocacy group that has been filing parole requests on behalf of Afghans.

Moreover, USCIS has outlined other reasons for why it has not processed most parole requests from Afghans and why the vast majority of the cases have been denied, including the argument that those looking for permanent settlement should be using the U.S.  refugee process, which can take years.

In a response earlier this month to concerns raised by Democratic Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey in December 2021, DHS assistant secretary of legislative affairs Alice Lugo said a nine-fold spike in parole requests had increased processing times by “several months.” 

“The main limiting factor for timely adjudication of parole applications is that the volume of receipts

significantly exceeds available resources,” Lugo wrote in her June 14 letter, noting that USCIS has assigned 90 officers to review these cases.

Lugo also insisted that the “evidentiary standard for individuals requesting parole is the same regardless of nationality or location of the beneficiary.” But she noted that many Afghan parole applicants are still in Afghanistan, where they cannot undergo required in-person interviews with U.S. officials. 

“However, because the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan has suspended operations, including all consular processing, USCIS is unable to complete approval of a parole request while the beneficiary is in Afghanistan,” Lugo wrote in her letter, which was obtained by CBS News.

Refugee advocates have urged USCIS to conduct parole interviews for Afghans remotely or waive them, as has been done for displaced Ukrainians being paroled into the U.S. under a private sponsorship program created in late April. They’ve also advocated for a similar private sponsorship policy for Afghans.

Under the Uniting for Ukraine program, USCIS adjudicates sponsorship requests from U.S. individuals to determine whether they have the financial means to support displaced Ukrainians. Once these sponsorship bids are approved and background checks are completed, Ukrainians identified by U.S. sponsors are allowed to travel to the U.S., where they are granted parole by officials at airports.

Humanitarian requests filed by Afghans and others generally require $575 application fees, while sponsorship requests for the Uniting for Ukraine program are free. Unlike parole requests filed by Afghans, Uniting for Ukraine cases are being processed electronically in a matter of weeks or even days.

DHS has denied it has used different standards for these populations, saying it is committed to assisting both displaced Ukrainians and at-risk Afghans. It has also argued that Afghans are searching for permanent resettlement, while Ukrainians are in need of a temporary safe haven.

But critics disagree. Markey, the Massachusetts Democrat, called the processing of Afghan parole requests “dismal and discriminatory.”

“Thousands of Afghans have been denied humanitarian parole, and only a few dozen have been approved,” Markey told CBS News. “This is a moral crisis. The American people are ready to welcome these families into our neighborhoods with open arms.”