“Morally reprehensible” | The American Legion

Tens of thousands of interpreters and their families remain trapped in Afghanistan as evacuations taper off, the US immigration system is overwhelmed and Afghans who have worked with the US military are unable to obtain visas or other documents that give them a chance to reach safety.

Large numbers of people are also fleeing Afghanistan, creating a massive refugee crisis in neighboring countries, said Margaret Stock, an immigration lawyer and retired army officer. Many will be deported to Afghanistan, where they are at high risk of execution by the Taliban.

“People’s lives are on the line because they worked for the US government,” says Stock, who is a member of American Legion Jack Henry Post 1 in Anchorage, Alaska. “Their whole family is in danger. We have a moral obligation to get them out of there.

The situation will almost certainly get worse as winter restrictions on the use of Kabul airport for evacuation flights and starvation and retaliation from the Taliban intensify. Veterans, refugee advocates and immigration lawyers are calling on the Biden administration to take swift and decisive action.

“If there’s one thing that needs to happen, it’s for the administration to commit to getting American allies out of Afghanistan,” says Sunil Varghese, political director of the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP). .

“The White House has to take ownership, admit that we left a group of people behind and say we’re going to get them out,” Stock adds.

For years, the American Legion has called on Congress to ensure that Afghan and Iraqi interpreters can come safely to the United States. “Our wartime allies saved countless American lives and directly contributed to all levels of tactical, operational, and strategic success during the mission in Iraq and Afghanistan,” states Resolution No. 16, passed by the Legion National Executive Committee in October 2018.

The crisis is partly rooted in the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program created more than a decade ago to give Afghan and Iraqi interpreters who worked with the U.S. military a more direct way to immigrate to the United States. United.

“The whole program was doomed,” Stock says. “It was poorly designed. It involves three agencies — the Department of State, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense — and no one is responsible. It takes years to approve SIV applications that are “The State Department didn’t want the SIVs to leave the country,” Stock says. “The State Department took the position that they were supposed to stay and fight. the Taliban.”

The DoD also failed to follow some well-established procedures for non-combat evacuations, including working with other U.S. government agencies to compile a comprehensive list of everyone who needed to be evacuated, Stock said. As a result, the US military attempted to create lists on the fly and more than half of the people who should have been evacuated were left behind.

“We taught courses on how to evacuate people from countries when I was an instructor at the Combined Armed Forces and Staff College and the Command and General Staff College,” says Stock. “We used to do that in exercises. This institutional knowledge has been wasted.

The Pentagon says the State Department has responsibility for compiling the master list of evacuees. And overall, the agency says the criticism is unwarranted given the sudden collapse of the Afghan government and military and the resulting security problems in Kabul.

“Despite these unprecedented challenges, U.S. forces, alongside our allies and partners, were able to evacuate more than 124,000 people at risk aboard 778 airlifts at an average rate of one departure every 45 minutes – all without any cancellations due to maintenance, fuel or logistical issues,” said Major Rob Lodewick, DoD spokesman. “It’s truly historic. While far from the “perfect” non-combatant evacuation operation scenario taught in schools, executing the largest airlift in US history in just 17 days isn’t happening. without the development, refinement and execution of very “well-established procedures”. and operational plans that (Stock) says we didn’t follow.

Aside from the massive August operation, IRAP, the Wartime Allies Association and other organizations say they have repeatedly asked the Biden administration to begin evacuating interpreters and other Afghans who were working with the U.S. government before the president’s spring announcement that U.S. troops would withdraw completely by September. “They were repeatedly warned that they could not ‘process’ their exit from the SIV backlog,” says Kim Staffieri, founder of the Association of Wartime Allies, which helps Afghans navigate the visa process. .

More than 60,000 Afghan interpreters and other visa applicants remain in Afghanistan, according to State Department estimates reported in The Wall Street Journal in December. IRAP says it is uncertain whether this figure is accurate. “I’m not sure anyone but the Biden administration has a reliable estimate, and they don’t share it,” says Adam Bates, an IRAP lawyer.

Additionally, many interpreters did not apply for SIVs until US forces left Afghanistan. “Most of the people I help are in the preliminary stages,” Stock says. “I haven’t heard of anyone having received an SIV since the fall of Kabul.”

Meanwhile, the US Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) is denying dozens of applications for humanitarian parole, a status that would allow Afghan SIV applicants and their families to come to the United States for two years while they work to obtain permanent residence. “Someone flipped a switch after the evacuations stopped (in August), basically telling the Afghans, ‘We don’t care about you anymore, you have to stay put and die,'” Stock said.

USCIS says it typically receives fewer than 2,000 humanitarian parole applications a year from all nationalities and approves between 500 and 700 of those applications. Since July 1, however, USCIS has received more than 35,000 applications for humanitarian parole from Afghan nationals alone. By the end of December, the agency had rejected about 470 such requests and conditionally approved the humanitarian parole of more than 140 Afghans living outside the United States. Additionally, the Department of Homeland Security has dramatically increased the number of officers working on parole cases by a factor of five to help deal with the surge in applications and improve processing times, a spokesperson said. word of USCIS.

Meanwhile, Afghan applicants for SIV and humanitarian parole who have fled to Pakistan, Turkey and other countries are at serious risk of deportation to Afghanistan as they face bureaucratic wrangling between the State Department and USCIS, Stock said. She helped 17 family members of an Afghan medical student get humanitarian parole late last summer. But they were unable to reach Kabul to collect the documents needed to board a flight to the United States before the embassy closed.

The State Department told the family that they could obtain their boarding documents from a US embassy in another country and that they had taken great risks to get to Pakistan. In the months that followed, the State Department told them that USCIS needed to verify that their humanitarian parole status was still valid, Stock said. And USCIS told them that the State Department should first send an email requesting this information. “These people’s lives are at stake, and these agencies are fighting over who should send an email.” Stock said. “It’s morally wrong.”

USCIS eventually reaffirmed that it had granted humanitarian parole to the 17 family members and they traveled to the US consulate in Islamabad to obtain their boarding documents. But the State Department returned their passports to the family in early February without boarding papers and is denying their request to seek refuge in the United States, Stock said. “It’s really awful.”

The State Department and USCIS say they cannot comment on specific cases due to privacy protections. However, the State Department said it is looking for other ways to process qualified SIV applications given that the embassy in Afghanistan is closed and it is extremely difficult for Afghans to reach other countries with US consular services where they can complete the part of the process that needs to be completed. in person. Those alternatives will depend on the cooperation of other countries and the Taliban, according to a State Department spokesperson. “This effort is of the utmost importance to the US government,” the State Department spokesperson added.

Ramish Darwishi, a former interpreter who arrived in the US in late 2020 after a long battle to get an SIV, can’t even find anyone to discuss options for helping his family get out of Afghanistan. “I called so many places. Nobody’s answering. Nobody cares,” says Darwishi, who worked with the US military in Afghanistan for eight years. “I think every second that the Taliban are going to kill my family.”

Stock is not surprised that Darwishi is blocked. “It’s hard to call anyone for help because the White House has decided they won’t let anyone come here anymore,” she said.

The situation is heartbreaking for veterans who served in Afghanistan, she adds. And in many ways, it’s a repeat of what happened after the US military left Vietnam – with one key difference. Congress passed legislation in 1975 that allowed approximately 1.7 million Vietnamese refugees to come to the United States over 12 years. “And the people we brought here after the Vietnam War were very successful,” Stock says.

Today, Canada is much more successful in opening its doors to Afghan refugees than the United States because it recognizes the importance of giving educated young people the opportunity to contribute to the country. It is high time that the United States realizes its obligation – and the opportunity that awaits it.

“We left a lot of our allies behind. We left many of our friends behind. We left their families behind,” Stock says. “We have to intervene and bring them home.”

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