Family that fled Taliban persecution fears deportation from US

It took the Hedayat family 16 months to reach the United States after seeking refuge from Taliban persecution. Now immigration court delays have left the family in terror over the possibility that they might be deported to Afghanistan — and back within the Taliban’s reach. An evacuation volunteer who helped the Hedayats told the Washington Examiner about the family’s arduous journey to safety on the condition of anonymity.

As a 19-year employee of the former Afghan government’s intelligence directorate, Saifullah, whose name has been changed for his protection, knew he was living on borrowed time when the Taliban came to power in August 2021. He had already avoided death in 2020 when a Taliban car bomb killed 11 people inside his workplace. To avoid the Taliban reprisal killings that were rampant after the group’s takeover, Saifullah escaped to Pakistan in September. Several months later, Saifullah’s wife, Ahdia, a former teacher whose name has also been changed, left the family’s possessions behind and fled to Pakistan with the Hedayat children, ages 3 and 4.

Even in Pakistan, Saifullah changed his location frequently because Talibs across the border sought him by name. As refugees, Saifullah and Ahdia could not work, and their children could not attend school. Saifullah registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for additional assistance but only received a registration card.

Saifullah applied for humanitarian visas to Brazil in late 2021. In August 2022, the family was interviewed at the Brazilian Embassy and was approved for visas. The Hedayats arrived in Sao Paulo on Sept. 25 and quickly realized that locals in Brazil felt little affection for Muslims — especially Afghans.

The Hedayat children smile with a member of staff from the refugee village in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

In October, Saifullah booked plane tickets to Rio Branco to join a caravan of refugees looking to reach the United States. The family took a ferry ride to the Panamanian jungle, which they had to cross by foot. The cartel member leading the caravan abandoned the Hedayats in the wilderness, where they were robbed of their cellphones and money. When they escaped the jungle on Oct. 31, the Hedayats’ children were sick with fever.

Eight days after the Hedayats finally reached Mexico and petitioned for asylum, the family was detained in Chiapas. With limited access to food and water, Ahdia became dehydrated and seriously ill. After American volunteers secured their release on Nov. 16, the Hedayats were harassed, pulled off of buses, and extorted by the Mexican police for funds as they continued toward the U.S. border.

Over the following month, the Hedayat family camped out in fast food restaurants in Tijuana, waiting for American handlers to arrange an opportunity to present themselves at the U.S. border.

The Hedayats finally requested asylum at the San Ysidro border crossing on Dec. 18. Border officials told them to return the following day for a special circumstances appointment, when the family was allowed into the country as conditional parolees. The family was given an immigration court date in February “to show why [they] should not be removed from the United States.”

Since entering the U.S., the Hedayats have been paying for hotel rooms, rent, food, and basic necessities with help from religious organizations and donations from evacuation volunteers and veterans. As a conditional parolee, Saifullah is not able to work. Sutter County, California, officials told the Hedayats that they were ineligible for state-based CalFresh or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits.

After three $130-160 Uber rides to the courthouse and three appearances before an immigration judge, the Hedayats’ case has not progressed. On Feb. 17, a cousin who attended court with the Hedayats said the judge was unaware that the family had presented themselves at the border legally or that they had petitioned for asylum more than a month prior to their court date. Though the cousin attempted to correct the record, the judge postponed the case. On April 21, a judge postponed the case once more because no translator was available.

At the Hedayats’ June 23 court appearance, the judge postponed the case until September, telling the family to bring legal representation at their next appearance. The judge also asked Saifullah and Ahdia what would happen if they were sent back to Afghanistan. Saifullah told the Washington Examiner that he informed the judge “that the Taliban would catch [him] and torture or even maim [and] kill him,” referring to the group’s reinvigorated reprisal campaign.

With each postponement, the one-year time clock on the Hedayats’ asylum application ticks away. Volunteers continue fundraising for the family out of gratitude for Saifullah’s service. “‘Saifullah’ was trained by our military and … gather[ed] intelligence that was fed up the chain to our intelligence community,” one volunteer said. She also said she was dismayed that the U.S. left its “trusted allies in such immediate danger,” and she has “a difficult time reconciling how we as a nation have treated” the Hedayats after they arrived in the U.S.

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