Op-Ed: The U.S. isn’t helpless. It could take in 150,000 Afghan refugees
In the past week we have seen searing images and read heartbreaking media accounts of Afghans attempting to leave as the Taliban has rolled into Kabul and asserted control over the country. Americans owe vulnerable Afghans more than sympathy.
Among those at greatest risk are individuals who have worked with the U.S. or its NATO allies, women’s rights activists, human rights defenders, academics, journalists and members of ethnic minorities. Some have reported death threats by the Taliban. Many are desperately trying to destroy any information connecting them to their professional past, but as long as they remain in Afghanistan, they are at risk.
Given the history of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, Americans have a duty not only to help such vulnerable Afghans but also to lead other nations to do the same.
Direct help from the U.S. is going to require a different approach than the government is taking now. The two routes to date — special immigrant visas and entry through a new priority category created in the refugee admission program — are woefully inadequate. For a start, they do nothing to respond to the immediate and desperate need for protection.
Special immigrant visas, created by Congress in 2009, provide a route to immigrate for Afghans who worked with the U.S. government. As has been widely reported, the application process is extremely onerous and seriously backlogged, conditions aggravated by chronic understaffing during the Trump administration. The International Rescue Committee recently reported that 300,000 Afghan civilians worked with the U.S. in some capacity, but only 16,000 special immigrant visas have been granted since 2014, with 18,000 “in the pipeline.”
Priority 2 of the refugee admission program is broader; it requires an employment relationship with the U.S. but includes work with U.S.-funded projects, nongovernmental organizations or the media. However, this possibility of protection comes with daunting logistical hurdles. Only Afghans outside their country can apply. This means that those at risk must first find a safe harbor nation and a means to support themselves during a processing period that can take months or even years, a situation that Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken has conceded would be “incredibly hard.”
Nothing in the law of the United States limits it to these two narrow options for responding to the urgent protection needs of the Afghan people. The Immigration and Nationality Act provides a mechanism to admit individuals “for urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit,” a process referred to as “humanitarian parole.”
Administrations going back to the 1950s have used the parole authority generously to admit those fleeing persecution — Hungarians after the Soviet invasion of their country, Cubans after Fidel Castro took power, and Vietnamese after the fall of Saigon. Just this week a bipartisan group of senators sent a letter to the Biden administration urging it to evacuate Afghans at highest risk and to use humanitarian parole to quickly and efficiently allow their entry into the United States.
Why? Some advocates speak of the responsibility the United States bears to the Afghan people after invading and fighting there for 20 years. They rightfully argue that the administration should not walk away from people who believed in and worked toward U.S. ideals of democracy, human rights, gender equality and freedom of the press. And that is correct. Those with a longer memory may also recall an earlier U.S. intervention. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989, the U.S. provided covert support to the mujahedin resistance, which subsequently became the Taliban. Any calculus of U.S. moral responsibility must take into account the full arc of U.S. intervention in Afghanistan.
Evacuating and paroling Afghans in categories at highest risk is the right thing for the United States to do. Doing so would earn credibility for the administration to encourage other nations to accept Afghan refugees. This type of “burden-sharing” is needed in the face of what will likely turn out to be a large-scale need for protection.
Burden-sharing has precedent in actions taken in the wake of the Vietnam War. Although the U.S. quickly evacuated and admitted 140,000 Vietnamese, there were many more in need of protection. Under the auspices of the United Nations, the Orderly Departure Program was established, and 20 countries, with the U.S., Australia, France and Canada in the lead, resettled over 600,000 Indochinese refugees. This is the type of collaborative, global effort that is called for today.
There have been some encouraging signs. Canada announced it would resettle 20,000 Afghan refugees, Angela Merkel has said that Germany may evacuate up to 10,000 Afghans, and French President Emmanuel Macron has committed to protect “those who are most at risk.” In response to U.S. requests, Albania and Kosovo have agreed to serve as temporary hosts for Afghans while their special immigrant visas are processed.
In this situation, the U.S. could easily justify taking in 150,000.
With the lives of so many Afghans in the balance, there is no time to lose. The administration can and should use humanitarian parole to bring Afghans to safety. As a candidate, and as president, Biden has often stated his commitment to human rights and the protection of refugees. He now has an opportunity to show the world these were not empty promises, but guiding principles.
Karen Musalo is a law professor and the founding director of the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at UC Hastings College of the Law. She is also lead coauthor of “Refugee Law and Policy: A Comparative and International Approach.”
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