Late last week, a request went out to U.S. refugee resettlement agencies asking to send staff to the Fort Lee Army base in Virginia. Pashto and Dari speakers were a high priority, but more important, volunteers needed to be willing and able to work 12-hour days, including weekends, for at least 10 days.
Just a couple of weeks earlier, the Biden administration announced it had begun airlifting U.S-affiliated Afghans and their family members to Fort Lee as part of an emergency effort to evacuate translators and others whose work with the U.S.-led military coalition in Afghanistan now put them at heightened risk from the Taliban as the last U.S. troops prepared to depart the country after 20 years.
“Last week, it became clear that those efforts were needing to ramp up faster as the Taliban was sweeping through, taking over provincial capitals and other places,” said Mark Finney, executive director of World Relief Spokane, the Washington state office of the Christian nonprofit that provides resettlement services to refugees across the United States. Two other nongovernmental organizations, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the International Rescue Committee, had been taking the lead on the visa processing operations at Fort Lee. Finney said those agencies contacted World Relief and others for backup last week in anticipation of “a dramatic increase in ... Special Immigrant Visa holders and applicants from Afghanistan.”
Finney raised his hand, along with dozens of other volunteers from resettlement agencies around the country, and within 48 hours he was headed to Virginia. But the situation on the ground in Afghanistan was evolving at an even faster pace. By the time Finney landed in Minneapolis for a layover on Sunday, the Afghan government had reportedly collapsed and Taliban forces had taken over the capital city, Kabul. Amid growing chaos at the airport in Kabul, evacuation flights had been put on hold.
“Should I get on a plane and go back to Spokane? Should I keep going?” Finney recalled wondering. He said volunteers who had not yet departed for Virginia were told to cancel their trips, but those already en route, like Finney, were instructed to continue to Fort Lee. There were already some Afghans there, and more would likely be arriving soon once flights resumed.
On Tuesday morning, though, Finney told Yahoo News that he and several other volunteers were told to stay at their hotel “because there's not enough work for us to do.”
“I left my family on the other side of the country and canceled all my meetings this week because I wanted to help people, and I came expecting that we would be working 12 to 15 hours a day, trying to process thousands of people,” he said. “And those people are still stuck hiding in their apartments, in Kabul. That's really a tragedy.”
Though Pentagon officials announced Tuesday that evacuation flights from Kabul had resumed overnight, it was unclear if and when anyone on those flights was headed for Virginia, where roughly 100 aid workers were waiting to assist Afghans.
“We have not (as of about 1pm today) received word as to when the next flights will come in to Ft. Lee,” wrote Mark Priceman, the Conference of Catholic Bishops’ assistant communications director, in an email to Yahoo News Tuesday.
The confusion and delays experienced by aid workers dispatched to Fort Lee seem to be emblematic of both the recent chaos prompted by the U.S. military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and the larger bureaucratic hurdles that have plagued the Special Immigrant Visa program for years.
Afghans who have provided interpretation, security, intelligence or other services to the U.S. government or military are eligible for Special Immigrant Visas, or SIVs. Since 2008, more than 75,000 Afghan allies and their families have been able to relocate to the United States through the SIV program.
But as with many other facets of the U.S. immigration system, this program has been beset by delays. Afghans who are eligible for SIVs must complete a 14-step vetting process in which they are required to demonstrate not only that they were employed by or on behalf of the U.S. government for at least two years, but that they provided “faithful and valuable service to the U.S. government.”
“That’s a difficult thing to prove in some cases,” said Finney, noting that applicants must obtain a referral from their employer. “There’s a lot of turnover in the United States personnel [in Afghanistan], and so somebody might apply for one of these visas, but then the person that they worked for two or three years ago can’t be reached or is difficult to contact or has been reassigned.”
As of September 2017, the State Department found that the average wait time for SIV applications to be approved was 906 days, or nearly two and a half years. Prolonged waits such as these have inevitably resulted in a backlog; as of earlier this year, an estimated 18,000 Afghan allies and 53,000 family members were in the SIV pipeline. According to No One Left Behind, a U.S.-based nonprofit that helps Afghan interpreters obtain visas, more than 300 SIV applicants have been killed while waiting to leave Afghanistan because of their affiliation with the United States.
The looming danger facing Afghans in the SIV backlog became even more immediate in April, when President Biden announced his plan to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by the end of August.
For months, organizations like No One Left Behind, veterans' groups and refugee advocates, along with both Democrats and Republicans in Congress, have urged the president to take action to ensure that those who aided the U.S.-led military coalition during its 20-year occupation of Afghanistan would not be left behind when the last American troops finally departed. Despite this, the Biden administration did not announce a plan to evacuate SIV applicants and their families from Afghanistan until late July, and even then only about 2,500 people were expected to be relocated to Fort Lee to complete the final steps of the visa application process.
For those like Matt Zeller, an Afghan war veteran who co-founded No One Left Behind, the chaotic scenes that have emerged from the airport in Kabul this week of desperate Afghans attempting to flee the country are not only heartbreaking but frustrating.
“I have been personally trying to tell this administration since it took office, [and] I have been trying to tell our government for years, this was coming,” Zeller said on MSNBC after Biden defended the withdrawal, including delayed evacuations, in a televised address Monday. “We sent them plan after plan on how to evacuate these people. Nobody listened to us.”
Biden has since authorized an additional $500 million in emergency funds to the State Department to relocate Afghan refugees, including SIV applicants. Pentagon officials announced Tuesday that they hoped to have hourly flights departing Kabul by Wednesday with the goal of evacuating between 5,000 and 9,000 people per day for the next two weeks. In addition to Fort Lee, the Defense Department said it was increasing capacity at two other military installations in order to house roughly 22,000 Afghan SIV applicants in the days and weeks to come.
But with the Aug. 31 deadline fast approaching, frustrations over the administration’s failure to act sooner are compounded by concerns about whether the U.S. will be able to move all the at-risk Afghan allies to safety in time. The Los Angeles Times reported Tuesday that Afghans attempting to reach the airport in Kabul were being beaten and penned up by Taliban fighters, despite White House assurances that the Taliban have agreed to allow “safe passage” for civilians trying to join the U.S. airlift. The path to safety is even less certain for those who live in other parts of the country, away from the capital.
A bipartisan group of 44 lawmakers addressed these concerns in an open letter, calling on Biden to extend the Aug. 31 deadline and commit to having U.S. troops “stay as long as is necessary” to safely evacuate all vulnerable Afghans, including SIV applicants.
In the meantime, Finney and other refugee resettlement workers are standing by.
“If the United States military and government can get folks to safety, then the nonprofits and the community-based organizations here are ready to receive these folks and help them build a new life here,” Finney said. “We just need to make sure that we get them here.”
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