In the News The Arizona Republic

Feds reach settlement to expedite asylum decisions for 20,000 Afghan allies living in U.S.

Partner Mike Williams was quoted in this article from The Arizona Republic discussing Kirkland's pro bono work alongside the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) to secure a recent class-action settlement that will help nearly 20,000 Afghan people seeking asylum in the United States.

The U.S. government has reached a class-action settlement to speed up the asylum process for nearly 20,000 Afghans evacuated to the United States two years ago and who have been waiting for months for their applications to be adjudicated.

Under the settlement, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal agency for processing and deciding asylum cases in the country, will expedite decisions under a series of rolling deadlines. The first deadline will be Oct. 31, when USCIS must process 50% of all the asylum applications that were filed by Afghans before June 3. The agency must also file a public status report every 30 days, documenting its progress.

U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar in San Francisco must still approve the settlement in the lawsuit, known as Ahmed v. DHS. The National Immigrant Justice Center and the law firm Kirkland & Ellis filed it on behalf of seven Afghans, but had petitioned to make it a class-action lawsuit impacting as many as 20,000 people.

The seven individuals named in the lawsuit had been waiting on a decision for their asylum cases longer than the 150-day period mandated by Congress for nearly 115,000 Afghans who had been evacuated to the U.S. under Operation Allies Welcome after the U.S. military withdrew and the Taliban took control of the central Asian country in August 2021.

Mursal Sadat, one of the seven plaintiffs in the case, had told The Arizona Republic her asylum decision took 400 days but was ultimately granted. During that time, she felt anxious about her future in the country and her ability to help her family, who fled to Pakistan six months after Sadat arrived in the U.S. under humanitarian parole.

“I am very happy that we have reached a settlement that will change this situation, so that asylum seekers can restart and rebuild their lives," Sadat said in a statement after the settlement announcement. "I may have received asylum since this lawsuit was filed, but I worry about the many others who have not been as lucky.”

While thousands of Afghans have received their asylum decision, for the nearly 20,000 who are still waiting, the next few months will be crucial. When they began arriving after August 2021, Afghans who evacuated to the United States received a two-year humanitarian parole permit. It allows them to work but offers no path to permanent residency in the U.S.

Those two-year permits will begin to expire in the coming weeks, and while USCIS announced that it will renew the permits, it will do so on a case-by-case basis. That means it is up to each Afghan parolee without an asylum decision to file their renewal application or risk losing their legal status in the country.

“The U.S. government rightly promised that people who worked to support human rights and build democracy in Afghanistan could resettle in the United States. The settlement ensures that the government will fulfill that promise to tens of thousands of our allies,” said Richard Caldarone, co-counsel in the case and senior litigation attorney for the National Immigrant Justice Center.

In addition to the upcoming October deadline, the settlement agreement set up additional deadlines with incremental markers on the number of asylum adjudications. By Dec. 31, USCIS must process 65% of all applications filed by Afghans before Aug. 3.

By April 2024, USCIS must process 90% of all asylum applications filed by Afghans before Dec. 2. And by June 2024, USCIS must process all applications filed by Afghans before Feb. 1, 2024.

"The Afghan people who fled to the United States had been stuck in a state of limbo. This settlement will help bring certainty and stability as they move forward with their new lives," said Michael Williams, an attorney from Kirkland & Ellis who is litigating the case.

The settlement talks between the plaintiffs and the U.S. Department of Justice had been going on for three months, according to court records. Final approval will be considered at a previously scheduled hearing on Sept. 11.