The immigration detention centre was packed. There were more than 100 people in a single room meant to accommodate less than 20.
A, an Afghan man who asked that his name be withheld, had come to the United States with his wife to seek safety. But as they experienced their first few days on US soil, a different reality sank in: one in which their future was all but certain.
“We thought our problems had been solved, that we had escaped the risk of prison and torture in Afghanistan,” he said. “We didn’t know that this was what awaited us in the United States.”
A has spent the last six months in that detention centre, stuck in a limbo that awaits many Afghan asylum seekers arriving at the US-Mexico border after the Taliban takeover of their country.
With limited options for legal immigration, thousands of Afghans like A have resorted to desperate measures, embarking on dangerous trips to enter the country irregularly. And like A, many have found themselves swept up in the US immigration detention system, faced with possible expulsion.
“Nobody would take these risks unless they had to,” Laila Ayub, a lawyer with the US-based Afghan and immigrant rights group Project ANAR, told Al Jazeera. “It is 100-percent related to the fact that there are no accessible pathways to the US.”
A dangerous trek
A and his wife have strong ties to the US. Both worked with the US-backed government in Afghanistan in areas like security and human rights.
But that history made them and others a target for potential reprisals under the Taliban, which swept into Kabul in August 2021, after the US withdrawal.
Previously, the US had toppled the Taliban government when it invaded Afghanistan in 2001, and it continued to fight the group during its two-decade occupation.
When the Taliban returned to power, A and his wife felt vulnerable. They sold their possessions and left, with the US-Mexico border as their destination.
The journey, however, took them across thousands of miles and more than a dozen countries. First arriving in South America, they joined the train of migrants and asylum seekers travelling north through Central America, a dangerous trek across tangled rainforests and steep mountains.
“When we were walking through the jungle I never felt tired, because I was hopeful that our situation would improve when we reached the United States,” A said in a phone call with Al Jazeera.
But the hazards went beyond the physical terrain. Criminal groups and abusive authorities along the way often prey on migrants and asylum seekers, who face high rates of theft and sexual assault.
A says he was robbed on the trip, losing his passport as well as his money and electronic devices.
Stories like A’s have become increasingly common, as Afghans are stuck between perilous conditions in their home country and a restrictive path to refuge in the United States.
“Every family we come across expresses concerns about their loved ones back home and are seeking lawful pathways to find a way to the US,” said Zuhal Bahaduri, who works with resettled Afghan families in California with the group 5ive Pillars.
“But with the US’s broken immigration system and closed border policies towards their own allies, it draws a lot of concern. They are in limbo here and in Afghanistan.”
Initially, when the US-backed government in Afghanistan collapsed in August 2021, nearly 90,000 Afghans were brought to the US through a mechanism known as humanitarian parole in an effort called Operation Allies Welcome.
But Afghans who were not able to secure passage out of the country during the messy US withdrawal have largely been shut out.
Of more than 66,000 Afghans who have sought humanitarian parole since July 2021, fewer than 8,000 had their applications processed, according to an investigation last year from the news outlet Reveal. The success rate was even narrower, with only 123 applications granted.
Other programmes such as the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV), set up for Afghans who worked with the US, are backlogged. Wait times can last years, and more than 62,000 completed applications were pending as of January.
Critics say these pathways are too modest to address the needs of the Afghan people, many of whom face heightened dangers because of their association with the US. The US occupation, they add, contributed to decades of violence and instability in Afghanistan.
“It is deeply frustrating to see the United States walk away from its moral obligations to provide these folks refuge,” the US-based diaspora group Afghans for a Better Tomorrow told Al Jazeera in a statement, “when it’s responsible for the harm it caused in Afghanistan.”
‘Treated like criminals’
When A and his wife finally arrived at the US-Mexico border in December, they were not prepared for the experience of being held in US detention centres.
“The floors were concrete and the room was packed. We couldn’t sleep for days,” said A. “There was no room to stand, and the guards cursed at us.”
A credits his stay with worsening his respiratory issues and high blood pressure. He recalled the humiliation he felt being shackled for three days as he was transferred from one facility to another.
“The Americans worked with us. We thought they respected us,” he said. “Now this is the situation I’m in.”
Another Afghan man, who also spoke with Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity and will be referred to as Akbar, echoed that feeling of disillusionment.
Akbar said his family spent years working with the assistance agency USAID on construction projects in Afghanistan, some of which came under attack by the Taliban. Now, one of his brothers is being held in an immigration detention centre, which Akbar likened to a “jailhouse”.
“My brother tried to work with the US to improve his country, and now he’s being held in jail,” Akbar told Al Jazeera over a phone call.
He explained his brother’s wife and children were released by immigration authorities, who dropped them off in the streets of an unfamiliar city with no money or information.
They are now staying in a shelter in New York City, where Akbar said that they are racked with anxiety as they navigate life in a new country without their husband and father.
Akbar himself passed through a detention centre, but he was released with his wife and children after about nine days.
“We thought we were coming to a humane society,” he added. “But we have been treated like criminals and animals.”
The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to questions from Al Jazeera regarding the continued detention of A and Akbar’s brother.
A’s wife, however, was released shortly after her initial detention. Their separation weighs heavily on A’s mind.
“The responsibility of her happiness is on me,” he said. “I brought her here, and now I can’t even look after her health.”