Is Cultural Leniency in Order for Afghan Sexual Offenders?

By Nayla Rush on September 20, 2023

Two years ago, the United States evacuated some 76,000 Afghans during “Operation Allies Refuge” following the withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan. Evacuees were taken to U.S. controlled facilities around the world called “lily pads” for screening and vetting, before being brought to the United States. Those with no visas were granted humanitarian parole (which is an official permission to enter and remain temporarily in the United States) at ports of entry, then transported to eight U.S. military bases and facilities across the country to receive a full medical screening and a number of services before moving into American communities. While on these bases, evacuees were able to apply for work authorization and were connected to resettlement services to help with their transition. Afghan evacuees were free to leave these military bases at any point in time.

One of these evacuees was Alif Jan Adil, a young Afghan (21 at the time) who was transferred to Camp Upshur at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia on September 10, 2021. Less than two months into his stay, Adil was arrested for engaging in a prohibited sexual conduct with minor and possessing child pornography images. He has been incarcerated in a Virginia prison ever since.

Following Adil’s conviction, his lawyer filed a “Defendant’s Position on Sentencing”, pleading with the court to impose a “sufficient, but not greater than necessary” sentence of no longer than ten years imprisonment. Most of the mitigating circumstances presented by the defense to get leniency at sentencing touch on Adil’s cultural difference: Adil had no time to adapt to American culture.

Afghan evacuees in military bases did receive some type of cultural orientation. Personnel in Quantico, in coordination with NGO staff, hosted Afghan-led classes open to the entire Afghan evacuee population. These included classes on American culture.

Dar Al-Hijrah is one of the NGOs who worked alongside refugee resettlement agencies to provide Afghan evacuees with numerous services, including cultural orientation. As a result of its work with Afghan evacuees, Dar Al-Hijrah became the only Muslim agency in Northern Virginia to be officially partnering with the Department of State to assist refugees and parolees upon arrival to the United States, which the organization proudly shared on its website.

In August of 2021, Quantico housed 3,755 Afghan evacuees for a period of four months. Evacuees were provided with numerous services on base, including: food and shelter, worship tents, Afghan-led English classes as well as classes on American culture, hygiene, and women’s health. The cost of housing 3,755 Afghan evacuees for four months in Quantico totaled $226.7 million.

Adil’s Lawyer’s Push for Cultural Leniency

Adil, as his lawyer explained, had been on U.S. soil for less than two months at the time of his arrest, confined to a military camp with other Afghans, which meant “he was still steeped in his home culture and had had little time to assimilate into the U.S.” Adil “may have viewed his relationship with F.J. [the victim, age 14 at the time of the offense] through the lens of his own upbringing.” That said, his lawyer argues: “This is not to diminish the rationale for the laws that protect minors in this country, but it provides context for Mr. Adil’s actions given his origin in a culture so distinctive and remote from our own.”

Less than two months into his stay, Adil was arrested for engaging in a prohibited sexual conduct with minor and possessing child pornography images. His lawyer argued that “he was still steeped in his home culture and had had little time to assimilate into the U.S.”

Teenagers in Afghanistan do become engaged and get married. Adil himself was engaged when he was 15 to a 14-year-old girl in Afghanistan, and they married two years later. In fact, the first instinct of the father of the victim was to demand that Adil marry his daughter.

Adil’s lawyer worries that he is struggling more than others in prison because of his background: his “incarceration has been and will continue to be more isolating than that of an average defendant’s given his language barrier and cultural background.” At the time of his arrest, Adil spoke only Pashto and no English. In prison, Adil is struggling to communicate with staff or other inmates at the Alexandria jail, according to his lawyer, and is “a world away from anything he has known or with which he is familiar.” The jail medical staff have repeatedly voiced their concerns to Adil’s lawyer about his client’s “mental health and isolation given his inability to communicate with anyone around him.” Adil is trying to “make the best of the situation he is in”. Eleven months into his arrest, he was transferred to a unit for educational programming where he is learning English and “[h]e now proudly shows off some rudimentary phrases, such as ‘how are you.’”

Adil, his lawyer argues, has no familiarity with the operation of a criminal justice system like that in the United States: “He required detailed explanations of not just the basic steps in the process, such as what a trial is, but also of the meaning of the words used to provide the explanation.” Adil’s hamlet in rural Afghanistan does not have a regularized criminal justice system, disputes are resolved through interfamily mediation.

Adil’s defense argues that “while a sentence of 10 years is substantial, it is particularly so for a Pashto-speaking Afghan national with no criminal history and no frame of reference for the U.S. criminal justice system.” 

Adil’s Background

Here’s what we know about Adil (information retrieved from the redacted “Defendant’s Position on Sentencing” on the public docket):

Adil comes from an impoverished hamlet in southeastern Afghanistan near the border with Pakistan. He grew up in a house made of mud and sticks without government infrastructure: no electricity, no running water, and no paved roads. Tap water and electricity remain unavailable in the region where he lived.

Adil’s father has three wives. When Adil was a child, his father left their mountainous village to work in Dubai to support the family. When his father returned home, he worked at digging wells until an accident broke his leg. The family was too poor to pay for medical care, so Adil went to work.

There was no school in Adil’s village, so Adil never attended school. Instead, a local imam taught him and other children from the Quran. Adil estimates he studied for about a year and a half. He speaks and reads only a dialect of Pashto.

Adil's wife and four children (one born shortly after he left) still live with his parents and siblings in the family’s home in in rural Afghanistan

Adil was married when he was 17 and his bride 16. The marriage was brokered by elders from both families. The couple has four children, including one who was born shortly before Adil’s evacuation. His wife and children still live with his parents and siblings in the family’s home in the mountainous village of Spera in rural Afghanistan.

Adil arrived in the United States on September 10, 2021, according to government immigration records. He was transferred upon arrival to Quantico and was arrested less than two months later. He has been incarcerated since. 

Adil has no criminal history in the United States, a fact underlined by his lawyer to the court while pleading for leniency. But Adil has no history in the United States, period; he has no prior convictions because he wasn’t here. During the first few weeks he was on U.S. soil, he managed to break the law. Moreover, we know nothing of Adil’s criminal history in his own country. His village in rural Afghanistan does not have a regularized criminal justice system; disputes there are resolved through inter-family mediation. And, as his lawyer pointed out, what is considered criminal activity in the United States might be acceptable conduct there. 

What Vetting?

Which brings us the problem of efficient vetting of Afghan nationals. The Biden administration assured us that parole was only issued to Afghan evacuees subsequent to serious scrutiny:

The rigorous screening and vetting process, which is multi-layered and ongoing, involves biometric and biographic screenings conducted by intelligence, law enforcement, and counterterrorism professionals from DHS and DOD, as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), and additional intelligence community partners.

But, as my colleague Andrew Arthur has explained, the screening and vetting process of Afghan evacuees was far from rigorous. We know of the absence of dependable screening measures for nationals from conflict zones, such as Afghans and Syrians, and of the impossible task of crosschecking backgrounds.

But even if Adil was indeed “rigorously screened” and all the documents pertaining to his judicial history in Afghanistan were available, he would still have been cleared to enter the United States. In Adil’s case, nothing was missed because there was probably nothing to find. As Adil’s lawyer underlined, some sexual conduct that is deemed criminal in the United States is considered normal in Afghanistan, hence the absence of any record of misconduct on that front from his hometown.

Adil’s Legal Status in the United States

Adil has no legal status in the United States. Contrary to common narrative, most of those who were evacuated from Afghanistan were not American “allies” – i.e., Afghan nationals who risked their lives to help U.S. forces in Afghanistan. In fact, amid the chaos and the urgency, most who managed to board evacuation flights had nothing to do with the U.S. government or any of its contractors. This means they were not Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) holders or applicants (SIVs are for Afghan interpreters or “allies”), nor were they granted refugee status; hence, the use of parole to admit them into the United States. “Immigration Parole” is an “official permission to enter and remain temporarily in the United States. It does not constitute formal admission under the U.S. immigration system.” Afghan evacuees were given a two-year parole at the time by the Biden administration, a re-parole opportunity was made available to them recently. 

It is not clear if Adil had any role in helping the U.S. government in Afghanistan; what we know from his lawyer is that Adil was not an SIV holder and that he was “paroled into the United States for purposes of resettlement” and “appears to have no formal legal status at this point.” 

During the resettlement process the U.S. government made sure that Afghan nationals were “provided with briefings on the conditions of their parole and that violating the law violates their parole.” Was Adil’s parole revoked?

This is important because Afghan parolees are able to sponsor their family members as “refugees” into the United States, following the launch by the Biden administration of the Afghan Family Reunification Program in January 2023. Unlike parolees whose status is in theory temporary, refugees are granted permanent resettlement (a refugee has to apply for a green card one year after arrival).

If Adil hadn't been caught, he would have been able to sponsor his wife and four children as permanent refugees and thus also given himself a path to U.S. citizenship.

What if Adil had not been caught? He would have been able to sponsor his wife and four children as refugees (i.e., future American citizens) and given himself, by ricochet, a path to U.S. citizenship.

As an Afghan parolee, Adil had access to numerous benefits: employment training, English-language training, job placement, support with housing, community orientation, help accessing health services, enrollment in various benefits and welfare programs, Refugee Cash Assistance (RCA), and Refugee Medical Assistance (RMA).

In principle, parolees, unlike resettled refugees, have limited access to benefits and services. But Congress intervened as early as September 2021 and passed legislation to make Afghan parolees (current and future) eligible for the same resettlement assistance, entitlement programs, and other benefits provided to refugees. (See the Afghanistan Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2022, and the Additional Afghanistan Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2022.)

Adil’s incarceration, his lawyer argues, is going to be longer than that of others because of his lack of a formal legal immigration status in the United States. He will not be eligible for residence in a halfway house prior to his release date and, even after serving a full term of incarceration without the benefit of any form of Earned Time Credits and early release, Adil faces additional time in ICE custody.

The United States is not deporting people to Afghanistan given the political situation there. This might change by the time of Adil’s release, but it might not. Moreover Adil’s lawyer notes, Afghanistan is not a signatory to the International Prisoner Transfer Treaty and, as a result, Adil unlike other inmates will not be able to apply to serve any of his sentence in his home country. But, if Adil was fleeing the Taliban rule, would he be asking to go back and serve his sentence there?

The defense, in closing, requested the court recommend that Adil “serve his sentence at FCI Bastrop or FCI Three Rivers, or otherwise as close as San Antonio, Texas, as possible to be near to his family members in the U.S., his brother and uncle.”

Could Adil have seized the opportunity to be evacuated out of Afghanistan not to flee the Taliban rule but to join family members in the United States?

Appendix: Cost and Services for Afghan Evacuees at Quantico

A total of 3,755 Afghan evacuees were sent to the Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia. The mission began on August 24, 2021, when the 2nd Marine Logistics Group were directed to provide support for Operation Allies Welcome (OAW) at the Quantico. The first group of evacuees arrived on August 29, 2021. On December 22, 2021, the last Afghan evacuees left the Quantico base, ending the OAW mission for Task Force Quantico.

Among the 3,755 evacuees at Quantico were 150 pregnant women.

As of December 3, 2021, Task Force (TF) Quantico reported the total cost of its support to OAW as $188.4 million. The $188.4 million consisted of $182.7 million for a base operations and support services contract, $4.6 million for travel expenses for deployed personnel, and $1.1 million for supplies. In addition, TF Quantico personnel estimated it will cost more than $38.3 million to sustain its current operations through the end of OAW and return MCB Quantico to its original condition. Which brings the total cost of housing 3,755 Afghan evacuees for four months in Quantico to $226.7 million. If we do the math, each evacuee cost $60,372.

The cost could be much higher. The eight military bases that housed Afghan refugees across the country (Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va.; Fort Pickett, Va.; Fort Lee, Va.; Holloman Air Force Base, N.M.; Fort McCoy, Wisc.; Fort Bliss, Texas; Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J.; and Camp Atterbury, Ind.) incurred almost $260 million in damage that “in some cases rendered buildings unusable for troops until significant repairs to walls and plumbing are made.”

The high cost of housing fewer than 4,000 Afghan evacuees in Quantico alone for four months might be shocking to some. But what people don’t realize is the extent of resources (human and physical) it took to guarantee security on base and provide Afghans with a wide array of services, ranging from food, shelter and worship tents to internet and recreational movie nights; medical, dental, and psychological care; English and American culture classes; immigration guidance, and more. One of the reasons housing this Afghan population proved to be particularly challenging (and costly) is the cultural difference involved. Quantico personnel had to accommodate these evacuees while taking into account religious and cultural sensitivities. Personnel needed to rely on translators for regular communication with the population it was housing and create a council of Afghan leaders on base to police evacuees but also educate them on what is considered proper conduct in the United States.

Numerous services were provided on base to these evacuees, as detailed in a Department of Defense report. Many, as you can note, are forged around cultural differences:

  • Housing: 5,000 beds were available, and all living quarters had electricity and internet.
  • Restroom and shower facilities were segregated by gender and cleaned by contractors daily.
  • Food and water: there were four dining facilities serving three hot and culturally appropriate meals to as many as 5,000 Afghan evacuees per day. A ready-made food service was discontinued because Afghan evacuees were storing food in their living quarters. Potable water was available as well; water tanks and bottled water were positioned throughout the encampment.
  • Worship tents: Those were separated by gender to accommodate cultural and religious expectations.
  • Religious leaders visited weekly.
  • Education and Recreation: In coordination with NGO personnel, Afghan-led classes were held. Those included English classes as well as classes on American culture, hygiene, and women’s health.
  • Movie nights, dance nights, and soccer and volleyball tournaments were also organized.
  • Establishing lines of communication: Town halls were held to provide information to the evacuees on changes to the base activities. Interpreters were present each time to assist with the translation. In collaboration with the International Rescue Committee and other NGOs, a specific town hall was held to address issues relating to the immigration process of evacuees.
  • A council of Afghan leaders was created to interact with the TF Quantico Commander and discuss TF Quantico operations and evacuee concerns.
  • Afghan leaders educated evacuees “on standards of personal conduct related to living in the United States, allowing Afghan evacuees to effectively police themselves.”
  • Medical Procedures and Observations: Quantico’s medical personnel performed medical exams and immunizations required by the Department of Homeland Security and provided various medical services. The medical personnel included pediatricians, obstetricians, gynecologists, and mental health professionals.
  • Immigration Exams and Vaccinations: For immigration purposes, evacuees received a screening for four communicable diseases (tuberculosis, chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis). Evacuees were also vaccinated and also screened for mental health and substance abuse.
  • Health and Wellness Medical Services: Two medical clinics, one for males and one for females, operated on base 24/7 to attend to evacuees’ illnesses and injuries. Routine and emergency dental care was also available on base.
  • Emergency and Off-Base Medical Care: In addition to routine medical care, evacuees with medical emergencies were taken to off-base hospitals for care.
  • Military Civil Affairs Advisors: They were assigned to “address grievances from Afghan evacuees early in a culturally appropriate way.” Quantico Civil Affairs personnel also coordinated with NGOs to host Afghan-led English and American culture classes.

Housing Afghan evacuees in Quantico also necessitated numerous security procedures, including: The deployment of 150 Marines; installation of fencing; and entry control points and roaming patrols. A drone with thermal imaging was used in case of a missing evacuee. Afghan leaders were relied upon to inform base personnel when evacuees missed their appointments or went missing.