In the last two weeks of August, the US government coordinated an unprecedented and massive evacuation from Afghanistan of more than 124,000 people, mostly Afghan refugees. This daunting logistical feat depended on the tireless efforts of thousands of U.S. military and civilian personnel. U.S. leaders are rightly proud of the heroic actions of these Americans, 13 of whom made the ultimate sacrifice when they were assassinated by ISIS-K extremists in the final days of the operation. Now, the Biden administration and Congress must focus on three urgent tasks: First, the United States must deploy all available resources to get as many vulnerable people out of Afghanistan as possible. At the same time, we must bring them to the United States, which has already been evacuated. And lawmakers should devise a customized immigration status for those forced to flee the Taliban in the wake of the abrupt US departure from Afghanistan. All three companies offer huge challenges.
The airlift in August was carried out under urgent and often chaotic circumstances as a result of the dramatic collapse of the Afghan military and government and the violent and mercury-like nature of the Taliban, which controlled access to Kabul airport. When the August 31 deadline expired and the last U.S. forces left the country, tens of thousands of very vulnerable people remained in Afghanistan. They are now in extreme danger and are desperate to leave. Various diplomatic efforts are underway to persuade the Taliban to allow their departure. At the same time, a number of humanitarian and charitable organizations are pursuing alternative retirement options. Time is of the essence because so many people, especially women and girls, are likely to be persecuted by the Taliban. Facilitating their departure should be a top priority. The US government must use all the means at its disposal to persuade governments with strong diplomatic ties with the Taliban to use their leverage to negotiate safe departure.
Many of the thousands of Afghans who have managed to leave the country now face a different set of challenges. The good news is that about 40,000 of them were either foreign nationals or Afghans who were evacuated by European or other governments or by international organizations that have taken on the responsibility of resettling them. Of the more than 65,000 Afghan refugees aired out of the United States, about 23,000 are now being housed in military or other facilities in Europe. Another 20,000 were relocated to places in the Middle East or other parts of Asia that have been dubbed “lily shields” because they are merely temporary stops for refugees. More than 24,000 Afghans have already been brought to the United States, where they are being held at military bases in Virginia. Texas, Wisconsin and other states. These makeshift events are far from ideal. Afghans often stand for hours in long queues to get their meals and face severely overcrowded conditions, even when traveling with small children. This situation is understandable given the magnitude of the evacuation and the hasty nature of the airlift. In a promising development on Tuesday, it was reported that the Biden administration will seek $ 6.4 billion from Congress to help cover the costs associated with the relocation of Afghan refugees. But the harsh conditions will not be eased immediately and underscore the need to resolve issues of Afghan legal status quickly.
These are classic refugees who have fled political, ethnic or religious persecution. Under the 1980 Refugee Act and related provisions, they would normally be screened and granted refugee status outside the United States and then invited into the country. Refugee status comes with a number of benefits, including initial financial support, sponsorship from resettlement agencies, language training and a path to permanent residence and citizenship. But in practical terms, our system for resettling refugees is in tatters. First, the Trump administration reduced the number of refugee admissions allowed to just about 7,000 people, who will be admitted this year from anywhere in the world. Although the Biden administration has raised the ceiling going forward, it will take time to rebuild the administrative structure. On top of that, it now routinely takes more than a year for U.S. authorities to process a refugee application, and applications must be processed outside the United States. None of the “lily block” countries are willing to offer temporary resettlement during this cumbersome duration process, as, for example, Austria did for Soviet Jews in the 1990s.
While some have suggested that the asylum system may offer an alternative for Afghans, this is also a deficient and unrealistic option. The system is already overwhelmed by a massive backlog of more than 300,000 pending cases and an underfunded administrative structure, which results in massive delays for even the most justified cases. The introduction of tens of thousands of Afghan cases would further paralyze the asylum system.
While a relatively small subgroup of Afghans – for example, translators who worked directly for the U.S. military – may be eligible for special immigrant visas, this system does not work well either. SIVs offer the same path to permanent residence and citizenship as refugee status, but the process has been painfully slow. In the first eight months of 2021, only 2,000 Afghans and their families were given this special status, and it is unclear how quickly the government can act to improve the effectiveness of the SIV program.
A fourth alternative that administration officials now seem inclined to pursue is to offer humanitarian “parole” to those approved by U.S. security screeners. The problem is that parole only offers temporary entry into the United States, typically for a maximum of two years. Nor does it offer the benefits available to those admitted as refugees. With few exceptions, the current Afghan refugees have no prospect of returning to their homeland, at least while the Taliban remain in control. Thus, if the parole system is used, the administration must find a way to provide them with short-term financial support and a path to citizenship.
Congress can address this issue by passing legislation that provides resettlement benefits and a path to citizenship for Afghans on probation to the United States. The Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 sets a useful precedent. For decades after Fidel Castro seized power, the United States used this law and other administrative measures to allow hundreds of thousands of Cubans to enter this country and become legal residents and then citizens. Afghan resettlement would be the largest effort of its kind since the United States received one million refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in the 1970s and 1980s, using a combination of special enrollment programs and the 1980 Refugee Act. Given the 20-year US commitment in Afghanistan, this type of large-scale effort is needed.
Some anti-immigrant members of Congress, along with former President Trump, are already raising fears of the perceived threats posed by Afghan refugees. Such fears are not supported by facts. History has shown that US safeguards are strict and efficient. Most Americans understand this. Recent polls reflect broad bipartisan support for the admission and resettlement of Afghan refugees who have fled Taliban terror and, in Emma Lazarus’ words, are now “longing to breathe freely.”