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Afghans arrive at the south border of the U.S. to find immigration system challenges

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Nearly two years after the fall of the government in Afghanistan, people are still fleeing the Taliban to the U.S. Increasingly, Afghans are making the arduous journey across Central and South America, walking through jungles to reach the southern border only to find uncertainty in the country's immigration system. Texas Public Radio's Paul Flahive has the story.

PAUL FLAHIVE, BYLINE: For Safi, the worst part of the near two-month journey from Brazil to the U.S. southern border was the four-day trek through the Panamanian jungle. He says they just couldn't stay dry.

SAFI: No dry here.

FLAHIVE: Everything was too wet.

SAFI: We need for fire. We found some woods from the trees, and we were cold, so we did not able to make a fire.

FLAHIVE: Not able to make a fire. He says the walk through the dangerous Darien Gap was worse for others, though. He saw many who desperately needed food, even children. Each month this year, official data says around 300 Afghans made the same journey. Last January, it was just one. But Safi says it was worth the risk to get to the U.S. The threat from the Taliban is real. His uncle was murdered in his village while he made the trip.

SAFI: Some people called to our family members. We found his body at the side of the road.

FLAHIVE: This threat is why we're only using his last name.

SAFI: Hello.

JONATHAN RYAN: Hello.

SAFI: How are you?

FLAHIVE: In a ground floor office on the north side of San Antonio, strategically located at the heart of where most refugees are resettled, Safi has brought his cousin to see Jonathan Ryan, an immigration attorney. His cousin just crossed from Mexico the week before.

RYAN: So can I take a look at the documents that you've got?

FLAHIVE: Ryan's seen a big increase in Afghan clients since San Antonio was one of the largest resettlement populations after the collapse of the country.

RYAN: OK, so this is the paperwork that immigration gave you to let you out from detention, but it's also telling you that there's a court case that is now beginning.

FLAHIVE: He says the court hearing isn't for another two years.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Pashto).

FLAHIVE: Safi translates for his cousin, who says he's responsible for his family in Afghanistan and he needs to work.

SAFI: I'm responsibility of - like, I'm holder of the house at this moment, and I need to work, and I need to do something here.

FLAHIVE: Ryan explains they can file the asylum application soon, but it will still be about eight months before he'll be able to get a work visa. The men have to figure out a way to live in the meantime. They both share a two-bedroom apartment with family here in San Antonio. Safi says 12 people live there.

RYAN: OK, well, lovely meeting you.

SAFI: Thank you so much.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Pashto).

FLAHIVE: Seventy thousand Afghans were offered humanitarian parole in the evacuation. It entitles them to cash assistance, housing, food and medical assistance. But there was no plan and no benefits for tens of thousands of others who were also threatened by the Taliban for their ethnicity, religion or for working for the past government.

NE’EMTULLAH AHMADI: I had to came here for a best future for my children.

FLAHIVE: Ne’emtullah Ahmadi, a Hazara, a persecuted ethnic minority, crossed the border with his pregnant wife and two children after a 45-day journey from Brazil in December.

AHMADI: So we are educated person. I am bachelor - I have bachelor's degree, and my wife is a medical doctor. We will be good for United States. We will work hard for the United States.

AUTOMATED VOICE: Now serving A0095 at counter 14.

FLAHIVE: After five months in the country, Ahmadi, who applied for asylum, is trying to get a Texas driver's license to take his wife to doctor's appointments.

AUTOMATED VOICE: Now serving A0096 at counter 20.

FLAHIVE: He's certain he has all the documents he needs, but as he speaks with the woman at the counter, his face darkens.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You have your social.

AHMADI: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You have your passport, but what else?

AHMADI: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: That library card is not - we don't take it.

AHMADI: This is the conformation of my residence.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: So this is not - we don't take this.

FLAHIVE: The best she can do is set up an interview for another day. Ahmadi would later learn he needed a work permit, something he won't have for months. There's a proposal in Congress that would streamline the process called the Afghan Adjustment Act, but it's stalled.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR THUDDING)

FLAHIVE: Back in my car, he says he hopes people understand how difficult these rules make it for asylum-seekers to live.

AHMADI: You know, I feel upset because today I got plan for getting the driver's license. It didn't happened.

FLAHIVE: He's frustrated and says he'll try again, but for the first time, he flashes a bit of doubt. For NPR News, I'm Paul Flahive in San Antonio.

(SOUNDBITE OF STORMZY SONG, "FIRE + WATER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Paul Flahive is the technology and entrepreneurship reporter for Texas Public Radio. He has worked in public media across the country, from Iowa City and Chicago to Anchorage and San Antonio.