US immigration advocates urge swift evacuation of Afghans

Washington, DC – Afghans who worked with the United States in Afghanistan are among the most vulnerable segments of the population after the Taliban’s takeover of the country, US immigration advocates and lawmakers are warning.

As US forces temporarily paused their mission to evacuate US citizens and Afghan special immigrant visa (SIV) applicants through Kabul airport on Monday, many have sounded the alarm that the latter group must not be left behind.

Those fears increased after footage showed hundreds of desperate Afghans swarming the tarmac at the airport in an effort to leave the country, with some holding on to a departing US military aircraft.

“It’s absolutely critical that the US use all options they can to facilitate the safe and orderly departure of people affiliated with the US,” said JC Hendrickson, senior director of refugee and asylum policy and advocacy at the International Rescue Committee (IRC).

Late on Sunday, the Biden administration said it is still committed to bringing Afghans who worked with the US during the 20-year war to safety.

Still, immigration rights advocates want to see urgency to honour this promise and make up for Washington’s failure to allow Afghans in need of protection to leave before the Taliban’s rapid, countrywide advance saw the group eventually reach Kabul.

Sunil Varghese, policy director at International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), a New York-based advocacy group, said despite the collapse of the Afghan government, it is not too late to evacuate Afghan civilians.

“We’re not completely out of time; every helicopter out, every aeroplane out means that many more Afghans are able to flee into a protection pathway,” Varghese told Al Jazeera. “And so, we just need to make sure that we’re getting more flights out and those flights have Afghans as well as any Americans that are still there.”

SIV programme

Congress launched the SIV programme in 2009 to allow Afghans who feared for their safety after working with the US to immigrate to the country with their families. According to the IRC, there are currently about 18,000 applications in the pipeline and thousands more are eligible for the programme, which rights groups said has been plagued with delays and backlogs.

Hendrickson said on Monday that the US should expand its efforts and resettle Afghans beyond the SIV programme.

“The US government should be facilitating the departure of anybody affiliated with the US. We’re prepared to do our part to help once those planes land in the United States; we’re ready to do all we can to help,” he told Al Jazeera.

“We just think the situation is so urgent that everybody affiliated with the US that meets the criteria for these programmes, be scheduled for departure as quickly as possible.”

Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area (LSSNCA), which helps with refugee resettlement, also said it was preparing for the arrival of as many as 2,500 Afghans into the Washington, DC, area during the next few weeks.

Afghans are mostly arriving through SIV, not the refugee resettlement programme, but they still need resettlement resources as refugees.

“For many, evacuation is a matter of life and death, and we are thrilled to witness the arrival of these heroic individuals and welcome them to our community,” Kristyn Peck, CEO of LSSNCA, said in a statement last week.

US plans for evacuations

Amid reports that US forces in control of Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul are prioritising the evacuation of Americans, the Pentagon and US State Department issued a joint statement late on Sunday promising to help SIV applicants leave Afghanistan.

“At present we are completing a series of steps to secure the Hamid Karzai International Airport to enable the safe departure of US and allied personnel from Afghanistan via civilian and military flights,” the departments said.

“Over the next 48 hours, we will have expanded our security presence to nearly 6,000 troops, with a mission focused solely on facilitating these efforts and will be taking over air traffic control.”

The Taliban reached Kabul on Sunday, and the central government in the capital collapsed as President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, prompting hundreds of Afghans to head to the airport in an effort to leave, as well.

The Pentagon confirmed on Monday that the airport was closed to all flights after the previous day’s chaos, which left at least seven people dead, but the department said later in the day that operations for evacuation flights had resumed.

The Pentagon and State Department said they plan to transfer thousands of US citizens who have resided in Afghanistan, as well as local staff at the US mission in Kabul and their families, and other vulnerable Afghan citizens, out of the country.

They added that applicants who have passed a “security screening” would be transferred to the US directly while others would be evacuated to “additional locations”.

But Varghese of IRAP said all applicants must be allowed to resettle in the US, explaining that Washington can issue “paroles” to allow people without visas to come into the country. He said there is no guarantee that the applicants’ rights would be respected in a third country.

“They need to be here in the US because we don’t know if they’re sent to Kuwait, Qatar or Albania, what happens?” Varghese said of SIV applicants. “Where are they going to be? Who’s going to feed them? How long are they going to be there? What are their rights?”

He added that the Biden administration wasted time in failing to secure the departure of Afghans who worked with the US months ago “as soon as it was clear that the US was going forward with the withdrawal”.

US President Biden defended the delay in evacuating Washington’s Afghan allies, saying in a televised address on Monday that some of the reasons behind it were out of Washington’s control.

“Part of the answer is some of the Afghans did not want to leave earlier, still hopeful for their country,” he said. “And part of it because the Afghan government and its supporters discouraged us from organising a mass exodus to avoid triggering – as they said, a ‘crisis of confidence’.”

Biden also announced plans to expand resettlement beyond the SIV programme to include Afghans who worked for the US embassy, non-governmental organisations and news agencies, as well as “Afghans who otherwise are at great risk”.

Lawmakers speak out

The push to resettle vulnerable Afghans into the US has enjoyed bipartisan support despite Republicans’ wariness of immigration programmes. On Monday, several members of Congress called on the administration to push for the evacuation of Afghans.

Progressive Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said Washington has a “moral obligation” to the Afghan people. “The US role in this crisis is indisputable,” Ocasio-Cortez said on Twitter.

“We must waste no time or expense in helping refugees safely & swiftly leave Afghanistan. We must immediately welcome them to the US & provide real support as they rebuild their lives.”

Senator Alex Padilla, a California Democrat, called for immediate action to secure the evacuations.

“As the situation in Afghanistan continues to unfold, the US must take immediate action to evacuate Americans, our Afghan allies & the most vulnerable,” he also wrote on Twitter.

Democratic Senator Brian Schatz, of Iowa, also called for prioritising the evacuation and resettlement of Afghan civilians.

“We cannot let politics or bureaucratic rules stop us from accepting as many Afghan interpreters and others into the USA as possible,” he tweeted. “There will be a time for analysis and recriminations, but people are in danger right now and we must help.”