WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of more than 80 lawmakers has sent a letter to President Joe Biden urging him to speed the evacuation of Afghans who aided US forces during their 20-year occupation.
The joint letter calls on the administration to speed the processing of visa applicants at so-called “lily pads,” or military bases outside Afghanistan where Afghans are brought after evacuation. The lawmakers also encourage the administration to open more lily pads in third countries to help with the flow of applicants.
“In the midst of everything else going on and the challenges we face, we don’t want this lost as a priority,” Rep. Bill Keating, D-Mass., the lead author of the letter, told USA TODAY.
The letter also calls on the administration to work closely with non-governmental organizations on streamlining the process and ensure that evacuations can be referred to the US Refugee Admissions Program for consideration should their visa applications not be approved.
The message from lawmakers comes as a humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. A collapsing economy, widespread famine, freezing winter and the return of the Taliban’s brutal rule have caused millions to try and flee the country out of desperation.
The lawmakers wrote they were “encouraged” by the appointment of Curtis Ried, a longtime national security aide, as the administration’s point person on Afghan resettlement efforts. Ried coordinates the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security and State’s efforts at evacuating and relocating Afghans from a nerve center in the White House.
“We’re asking him to make this part of his agenda,” Keating said.
Ried’s appointment comes after The AfghanEvac Coalition, a coalition of 150 organizations working to resettle Afghans, penned an open letter to the administration calling for greater coordination of resettlement efforts.
Ried is seen as an “effective” coordinator “with the experience and the capability to get this job done,” according to Shawn Van Diver, the coalition’s founder. Yet much of the work of navigating the process has failed on volunteers aiding Afghans, a burden aid groups now want the federal government to more greatly shoulder.
“It seems like we’re not talking about this from the White House,” Van Diver said, cautioning that “this job is not done” even as the Biden administration is “making progress every week” albeit at an unsatisfactory pace.
Advocates working to help evacuate and resettle Afghans in the US want the administration to take over more parts of the process and streamline others, such as allowing for a virtual screening of visa applicants or refunding the humanitarian parole fee which applicants are required to pay.
“We’ve got to figure out a way to have a sustainable, reliable pathway for the new neighbors that are coming in. And right now it’s kind of abysmal,” Van Diver said of resettlement efforts.
“We’re hoping that if things can’t be done — if there are problems — let’s identify what they are and see if they can be rectified,” Keating said, calling the process a “continuing dialogue” between the two government branches.
Eight military bases across the US have been hosting Afghans as they await final processing. This month, those operations will be centralized at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst near Trenton, New Jersey.
About 14,000 people remain at five of those military bases, with nearly 11,000 alone stationed at McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in an encampment known as “Liberty Village.”
Of the approximately 76,000 Afghan nationals who have arrived in the US through the Operation Allies Welcome, the military’s evacuation operation, over 62,000 resettled as of January, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
Yet tens of thousands more Afghans who directly aided the US and its allies or those who would otherwise be targeted by the Taliban, such as journalists and human rights activists, are still in limbo as they search for a path to safety.
“People are broken, people are hurting,” Van Diver said of the emotional toll felt by thousands of American veterans and volunteers working to help US allies. “We still have an opportunity to show that we are who we say we are. I want to be that country. I want to be the country that leaves no one behind.”
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism