The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The U.S. is dragging its feet on getting Afghans to safety. There’s a faster way.

Decades ago, the government used humanitarian parole to evacuate hundreds of thousands of refugees

Women and children collect water at a camp in Kandahar, Afghanistan, on July 30. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post )

As the Taliban moved through Afghanistan like a warm knife through butter, many Afghans found themselves facing another intractable and ruinous enemy: red tape.

Thousands of Special Immigrant Visa applicants — who had worked as interpreters and support staff for the U.S. military at great personal risk — found themselves in an unending limbo, sending paperwork to a rapidly diminishing embassy staff and waiting for answers that might never come. Afghans who tried to apply for the recently announced P2 refugee program, intended for those who worked for U.S. aid programs, NGOs and media outlets, found that it effectively doesn’t exist, as the consular staff empty out into the few remaining flights out of the country.

Biden administration officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, have said they are working on streamlining the applications, alternately claiming they’re adding personnel to process more applications or punting to Congress, asking for more visas and a statutorily simpler process. Yet no amount of sped-up processing is going to be enough in a situation in which total Taliban control of Kabul might be days or even hours away. Plus, such measures could help only people who nominally qualify; thousands more have no way out, even on paper.

These weak assurances aside, the U.S. government does, in fact, have the capacity to bring people stateside without the onerous requirements of our byzantine refugee system: They can do it through humanitarian parole. Section 212(d)(5) of the Immigration and Nationality Act states that the government may, on a case-by-case basis, parole people into the United States “for urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit.” Under this designation, the Department of Homeland Security can temporarily admit almost anyone into the country on the spot.

As is made painfully evident by footage of Afghans falling to their deaths after literally hanging on to outgoing U.S. Air Force planes for dear life, there is ample humanitarian reason to get people out of Afghanistan and into the United States. Any subsequent vetting and paperwork required to formalize and make permanent these resettlements can easily be handled with the refugees on U.S. soil. It’s patently absurd that bureaucrats are scrambling to complete largely meaningless government busywork as the Taliban closes in, or trying to strike deals with third countries such as Uzbekistan and Kosovo to resettle refugees fleeing the aftermath of the U.S. occupation.

In anticipation of potential protestations that using humanitarian parole is unrealistic and dangerous, there is this: We have done it before. Parole was the main tool of choice to quickly evacuate around 130,000 Vietnamese refugees in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Saigon in April 1975. U.S. officials tried to prioritize people who’d had some involvement with the war effort, but ultimately anyone fleeing the encroaching North Vietnamese could qualify. Officials weren’t really looking at people’s circumstances case-by-case; there wasn’t the time nor really the inclination, as they felt responsible for the unfolding catastrophe in its totality. The parole evacuations were a stopgap on the way to more formal programs, through which eventually hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese immigrated to the United States.

Where are the women fleeing Afghanistan?

This all took place at the height of the Cold War, as many policymakers remained obsessed about the prospect of communist infiltration and foreigners bringing subversive ideologies from abroad. Yet the conversation around the mass resettlement of Vietnamese refugees didn’t center on public safety concerns; it took place in another era, when every debate about immigration didn’t inevitably get sucked into the all-encompassing homeland security mind-set.

Americans also felt a significant sense of collective responsibility toward the refugees of this conflict: The resettlements weren’t necessarily popular with the public at large, at least at first, but policymakers accepted the fullness of their failure in Vietnam, and viewed the evacuations as a final expression of duty; even those who supported the war’s continuation were happy to accept refugees who were leaving communism behind. People were flown to safety with few questions asked, with the understanding that lives in immediate danger were not something that could be recovered later.

Flying every remaining SIV applicant in on a parole designation is a good start, but there’s no reason that the Biden officials should limit themselves to that. The list of potential targets here is long: human rights campaigners, journalists and media support workers, academics and pretty much all women and girls not on board with the Taliban’s regressive efforts. All are at even greater risk than they were before the U.S. occupation, having made themselves more visible in the mistaken belief that our government would protect them.

The onerous security and document checks and cross-references that are required to obtain and utilize SIV or refugee status are duplicative at best and almost entirely superfluous at worst, including often at least three separate background checks and scrutiny from a host of intelligence agencies. Sure, laws and regulations may technically require such a gauntlet — but the law also provides Biden with the unilateral ability to evacuate as many people as he chooses right now, and handle the red tape later. There may be logistical challenges around securing the Kabul airport and coordinating these evacuation flights, but the legal obstacles are anything but insurmountable.

It’s convenient at this stage to blame the Afghans for their troubles, as the president did in his speech Monday. But refugee and veterans organizations have spent months begging the administration to lay the groundwork for widespread evacuations of, at minimum, interpreters and others directly involved in the U.S. war effort, even presenting detailed plans of action. Instead, the administration has faltered on every aspect of the refugee resettlement apparatus, with Biden issuing an early executive order that appears to have produced little in the way of concrete results and dragging his feet on raising the annual refugee cap.

It’s too late now for the evacuation plan that should have been, but there’s a brief and rapidly closing window for Biden to use the massive authority vested in him by Congress in matters of immigration. Parole is a blunt but expansive tool, and the time for finesse has now long expired. It’s time to throw open the cargo doors and load up the planes before the Taliban takes that option away altogether.

Read more:

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