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There’s Still More to Be Done to Help Afghans

Let’s start with a law that would give security to Afghans in the U.S. and reduce the backlog of asylum applications.
by Jim Swift
May 12, 2022
There’s Still More to Be Done to Help Afghans
An Afghan refugee waits in line for personal hygiene products inside a distribution and donation center at Liberty Village on December 2, 2021 in Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey. (Photo by Barbara Davidson-Pool/Getty Images)

While the eyes of the world remain on the war in Ukraine, we should not forget the people suffering in the aftermath of our country’s longest war, the war in Afghanistan. After our hasty withdrawal last year, most Americans agreed that we should help the people of Afghanistan who helped us—especially since the Taliban’s track record of brutality does not suggest a kind fate for allies of America who stayed in the country.

Meanwhile, many of the Afghans who made it into the United States are struggling financially or have been left in a legal limbo.

Last weekend, I drove around the countryside with my family and, while trying to see Virginia’s famous bluebell flowers, ended up at the gates of Camp Upshur, a Marine facility that housed 5,000 Afghan refugees on the massive Quantico Guadalcanal training area. By coincidence, a few hours later I was on an email thread about how we can continue to help those Afghans who risked life and limb to help our troops.

Impressed and humbled by the generosity and heart of Bulwark readers and listeners for their $163k+ in donations to World Central Kitchen to help Ukrainians, I remember the many conversations with readers asking: What can we do to help the refugees from Afghanistan?

Private charity is wonderful, and a great many Americans—including many people in our Bulwark audience—were very generous last year. But what is really most needed now is government action—like the Afghan Adjustment Act that, in various forms, is being considered in Congress. An attempt to attach it to a bill supporting Ukraine failed this week, but its backers say they intend to keep trying.

An “adjustment act” adjusts immigration policy to meet the challenges raised by world events. Adjustment acts were passed after the rise of Castro, after the end of the Vietnam War, and during the Iraq War. The act that has now been informally proposed would provide a pathway to citizenship for Afghans in the United States on a “parole” status. These Afghans, mostly in the country on Special Immigrant Visas or as asylees through the Refugee Admissions Program, would, after being vetted, be allowed to apply for permanent status (a green card) after a year of being here.

Passage of such an adjustment act would not only give some sense of security to Afghans already here but would help ease the backlog of Afghans desperate to come. Some 18,000 cases of SIV applicants are awaiting decisions, and the asylum backlog is nearing two million cases.

When we have an influx of asylees or immigrants under visas from a wartorn country, we typically don’t ramp up the resources we need even just to process the cases adequately. Meaning that people who do make it into the country can lose their jobs and/or be deported.

But deported to where? In this case, perhaps back to Afghanistan or to a neighboring country . . . or any country that would take them. While our immigration system isn’t very flexible, our employment-verification and deportation programs are indeed flexible.

Jim Gaffigan has a joke about immigrants to America working at Subway who used to be the attorney general in their homeland. This isn’t far from reality: Afghanistan’s last pre-Taliban finance minister, a Fulbright Scholar, lives near me now and is driving an Uber to make ends meet.

Now that the effort to attach an Afghan Adjustment Act to the Ukraine bill has failed, the question becomes whether some other approach might work—and more to the point, whether there are enough votes in the Senate. That’s unclear, although it’s conceivable that enough Republicans—Pat Toomey, Rob Portman, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Richard Burr, Roy Blunt, Richard Shelby, among others—could be persuaded to join Democrats in passing such a measure.

And what can you, as a citizen, do to help make the Afghan Adjustment Act a reality? You can call your representative and your two senators. They are the only members of Congress who really care about what you think, because you can vote for or against them—so it’s not worth calling other congressional offices.

Unless you are a veteran, in which case you should pretty much call every Republican you can. Tell them your story. Do you have connections? Use those. And if you served in Afghanistan, tell every 25-year-old staff assistant in the Senate or House about the Afghans their age (or younger) who helped you get back to the United States.

These junior staffers will write a memo telling their boss about their calls. Get on that memo. Tell your story. And if your elected official is on the ballot this fall? Go to one of their events and ask them in person. Have somebody record it. Let’s see what we can do to pressure congressional Republicans to do the right thing.

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.