FIn the two decades that the United States fought the war in Afghanistan, hundreds of thousands of Afghans worked with American forces at great risk to themselves and their families. A small fraction of those translators, drivers, and other workers were promised ways to obtain special visas to leave the country and move to the United States in exchange for their service.
But now, after a hasty American military exit and an even faster takeover by the Taliban, thousands of applicants for these programs and other refugees are in limbo with an unclear timeline for when their applications will be processed and serious questions about their safety while they wait.
For the past week, scenes of people crowding the Kabul airport were broadcast around the world as Afghans tried to flee the country and Taliban fighters search for people they suspect of aiding the US military.
It’s a scenario that some legislators in Congress had warned about for months. Republican Congressman Peter Meijer of Michigan called the delay and delays “infuriated.”
“This has been a program that across administrations has developed slowly,” Meijer, a veteran who supported the expansion of the special immigrant visa (SIV) program for Afghans earlier this year, told The Guardian.
“When you talk to people every night who move from house to house because they are being followed by the Taliban, and … we are exactly in the situation that several months ago we thought we would be … and you are ignored, it tends to be frustrating.” Meijer said, before correcting himself. “Enraging, enraging.”
More than 300,000 civilians in Afghanistan have worked with Americans during the US occupation of Afghanistan, according to the International Rescue Committee. More than 15,000 Afghans, in addition to their families, have already resettled in the United States through the SIV program. Another 18,000 applications were pending, and that number is almost certain to skyrocket.
On Capitol Hill, in recent days, members of Congress have created email accounts and hotlines to answer calls from American voters and veterans trying to help Afghan colleagues trapped in the country. Those lawmakers have reported a flood of new applications from SIV applicants or people trying to help them.
“Right now, in the current crisis, we have made more than 200 SIV requests. My office. That’s only since the weekend, ”said Democratic Congressman Gerry Connolly of Virginia.
The frustration has been visible among the veteran community in Congress and beyond. And criticism directed at the Biden administration has been bipartisan.
“For months, I’ve been asking the administration to evacuate our allies immediately, not to wait for paperwork, shaky third-country deals, or time to make it look more ‘orderly,'” said Congressman Seth Moulton of Massachusetts. in a sentence.
Defending the US withdrawal this week, Biden argued in a speech that the chaotic evacuation of Afghan civilians was partly due to some “not wanting to leave sooner.” Moulton, Democrat and Iraq War Veteran, condemned this as “full BS”.
To qualify for an SIV, Afghan citizens must have worked directly for US forces as translators for 12 months or have been employed by the US government or the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) for two years between 2001 and 2021.
Still, the process of leaving the country for Afghans is full of bureaucracy. Meijer described how friends from the veteran community had been absent from work or were using all the connections they could to try to help the interpreters and their families.
“We have things like people who are turned away because of polygraphs or medical tests or because of the length of the processing,” Meijer said. “We have already killed people who are in this pipeline. We need to move heaven and earth to do this. “
Earlier this month, the the state department said Afghans who did not qualify for SIVs but were at risk due to their affiliation with the US could apply for the US refugee program, which is also very limited and experiences long delays.
Earlier this year, a bipartisan group of lawmakers led by Republican Congressman Jason Crow of Colorado introduced legislation to streamline the SIV process and expand available spaces by 8,000.
In July, Congress passed legislation aimed at streamlining the relocation process, eliminating certain requirements for special immigrant visas (SIVs) aimed at reducing long delays in processing those applications.
A small contingent of House Republicans who opposite By expanding the SIV program they have argued that the United States should not let in any Afghan interpreters or refugees. That argument has been met with harsh reprimands.
“Anyone who understands the SIV program would have to agree that they should be allowed in,” said Senator Thom Tillis, a Republican from North Carolina.
Connolly said: “I think that’s consistent with his inhuman approach to life. America has always been a place of refuge in these kinds of circumstances. “
Connolly said he now wanted to see us “very liberally process and approve SIV applications and get people on the planes as quickly and expeditiously as possible.”
Congressional offices have resorted to trying to coordinate with the state department individually or with other offices to try to help stranded applicants. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, a Democrat, and Republican Joni Ernst of Iowa put together a bipartisan letter to send to officials in the Biden administration arguing that the SIV process must be recalibrated again and quickly.
Lawmakers say it is now dangerous to carry the US-affiliated paperwork needed at the Kabul airport to leave the country.
“I am very concerned about SIVs or even US citizens or dual citizens who are outside of Kabul and at the moment, what should be a 20 minute drive to the airport took them an hour and a half when they tried yesterday,” he said. Tillis. .
There have been a number of briefings in Congress by government officials, including high-level meetings with Congressional leaders, according to several attendees with knowledge of those calls, and there will be more to come. But lawmakers remain pessimistic that the United States can make up for lost time.
“I’m frankly terrified of what we might see if we turn our back on these people now, what that will do to our veteran community, what it will do to civil-military relations,” Tillis said.
“This is not a problem that will go away and if President Biden thinks it will go away, he only guarantees that it will get a lot worse.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism