The desperate messages started flooding Joshua Goldstein’s inbox at 4 a.m. early Sunday morning.
Goldstein, an immigration lawyer based in Los Angeles who handles visa delay cases, earned a reputation in the Afghan American community over the years as an attorney who could get things done and prod the sluggish immigration bureaucracy into action. Now, with the Taliban in control of Kabul and escape from the country in doubt, they looked to him for help.
“I went to the airport,” one client texted Goldstein. “Afghan troops wouldn’t let us in. US soldiers came storming out of the airport saying people were shot dead and they won’t let them get on a plane. People of all nationalities, European citizens also—people are trampling on others and so afraid. The Taliban are ruthless, brutal animals.”
After warnings of panicked tramplings and looming Taliban, the same man had a painstakingly formal question for his attorney about a message he’d received from what used to be the American embassy in Kabul. “When the embassy says ‘awaiting immigrant visas’ does that pertain to an applicant who has done his or her interview or does that include people who have not been scheduled for an interview?”
Only one answer seemed appropriate to Goldstein: “Stop asking questions about immigration law niceties and get out of Afghanistan.”
America’s immigration process for Afghans, the promises it represented, and the personnel who staffed it have mostly disappeared, replaced by a new one enforced instead by Taliban checkpoints, a small number of diplomats, and outnumbered American soldiers and Marines.
In its wake, immigration lawyers like Goldstein are left with too many questions about how these gatekeepers of a newly improvised immigration process will decide who stays and who goes and what, if anything, families and their representatives can do about it.
On Wednesday, the State Department issued a statement saying American citizens and those with Special Immigrant Visa status should come to Hamid Karzai International Airport where they can be evacuated. Less clear is what will become of those still stuck somewhere in immigration process as an estimated 60,000 Afghans are eligible for special immigration status offered to those who helped the U.S.-led war effort.
Even during periods of relative calm, the immigration process could be tortuously slow for Afghans. Goldstein in an interview on Wednesday pointed to one family with SIV status granted in 2015. “The family goes to the embassy in Kabul, and they approve the husband and the four kids but the wife they put in administrative processing, which basically means it’s stuck.”
She stayed in Afghanistan and her family left for the U.S. thinking it would be weeks before they could be reunited; it ended up taking five years and a federal lawsuit to happen.
The U.S. withdrawal, announced in April, brought little speed to the process of allowing America’s Afghan allies into the country. In a speech on Monday, President Biden explained away the crowded morass at the airport by claiming that “some of the Afghans did not want to leave earlier, still hopeful for their country.”
Many Afghans, however, felt the urgency for departure more deeply than those processing their paperwork and entered what can be a years-long process the moment the Biden administration announced its withdrawal.
Among those trapped are Afghan Americans who earned U.S. citizenship and traveled back to the country as the U.S. withdrawal began in an attempt to try and bring back family members only to find themselves unable to leave.
Another of Goldstein’s clients, an Afghan American who earned U.S. citizenship through the SIV program, flew to Kabul in hopes of bringing his bride-to-be back to America. “He hired me to challenge a processing delay for his fiancée’s paperwork and he went back there to get her and travel back with her.” Goldstein’s intervention was only partially successful. It prompted a State Department interview—scheduled for September.
Love brought him back to Afghanistan. America has stranded him there.
“He’s in a panic. He said he fears for her safety and saw 15 people shot dead in the street of Kabul,” Goldstein said. He hasn’t heard from him since Sunday.
The Daily Beast was unable to independently verify the man’s claim.
Another client was waiting to make it out of Kabul with a visa and a commercial flight scheduled for this week.
“Dad couldn’t get a flight,” his client’s son in California wrote to Goldstein. “His flight was cancelled. The airport is a mess. We’re trying everything we can to get him out.”
They’re some of what he estimates are 20-30 clients who are still in the country. Some are SIV recipients. Some are lost somewhere in the process.
“I’ve been reaching out to all my Afghan clients saying what can I do for you? I’ll work for free or a reduced fee,” Goldstein told The Daily Beast. “It’s so traumatizing. I don’t know what to say or do. I wish there was something more I could do to help.”