Freshta, a college student in Michigan who was granted U.S. asylum after leaving Afghanistan as a teenager, is terrified that her family could be harmed by the Taliban, which has taken over the country.
The 22-year-old U.S. resident said her family members stranded in Afghanistan are in danger of being persecuted by Taliban hardliners because they are members of the country’s Hazara ethnic minority, which has been oppressed for decades. Her brother-in-law also assisted U.S. military forces during the 20-year war against the Taliban, and he has applied for a special visa for Afghans who helped the U.S.
Freshta said her family is currently in hiding, waiting for a chance to be airlifted by the U.S. forces that control Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport, the last area of the capital that is not under Taliban rule. They include her mother, sister, brother-in-law and four young nieces and nephews, the youngest of whom is five years old.
But Freshta said her family members were stopped when they tried to reach the airport. She said they fear they could be attacked by Taliban security forces at checkpoints that have been set up in Kabul if they try again.
“I’m very afraid for their safety,” Freshta, who asked for her surname to be omitted to protect her family, told CBS News. “My family helped out the U.S. military, and then they packed up and left them behind.”
Like Freshta’s Hazara family, tens of thousands of Afghans find themselves in an increasingly precarious situation following the abrupt collapse of the U.S.-aligned government in Kabul. Among them are an estimated 80,000 wartime allies and their spouses and children, as well as countless women, activists, journalists and members of civil society who could be targeted by the Taliban.
Freshta’s brother-in-law has applied for a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV), which allows certain Afghans who helped the U.S. war effort resettle in the U.S. If granted, the visa would also allow his wife and children to obtain U.S. status. Separately, Freshta’s other sister, an American citizen, has filed a petition for their mother to immigrate to the U.S.
“Building the plane while flying it”
The Biden administration has pledged to evacuate some at-risk Afghans, including Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applicants who helped the U.S. war effort. So far, nearly 2,000 SIV applicants and their family members have been relocated to the U.S.
U.S. officials have said the Taliban has agreed to allow Americans and other potential evacuees to reach the Kabul airport, but they’ve also conceded the U.S. government “cannot ensure safe passage.”
Time is short: President Biden said the U.S. is trying to complete all evacuations by August 31, when American military forces are scheduled to leave Afghanistan. He vowed Friday that “Any American who wants to come home, we will get you home,” but did not offer the same guarantee for Afghans who helped the U.S.
“We’re going to do everything, everything we can to provide safe evacuation for our Afghan allies, partners and Afghans who might be targeted,” Mr. Biden said.
Advocates for refugees have roundly criticized the administration’s effort to airlift and resettle Afghans, denouncing the plan, dubbed Operation Allies Refuge, as slow and too small given the scale of the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.
The U.S. started the evacuation of Afghan allies on July 30, two weeks before the fall of Kabul.
“The chaos we’ve seen over the last several days could have and should have been avoided. We’ve been advocating for a full evacuation of our allies for months now,” Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, told CBS News.
Vignarajah criticized the Biden administration for failing to take proactive steps ahead of the announced military withdrawal to speed up the visa processing and evacuation of Afghan allies. “Now, for lack of a better term, they are building the airplane while flying it,” she added.
She believes the U.S. should aim to airlift 130,000 at-risk Afghans by the end of August. But she also argued that the August 31 deadline could be extended to relocate more Afghans.
Also complicating the Biden administration’s evacuation efforts are long-standing onerous requirements and bureaucratic delays plaguing the SIV and refugee programs, which were both crippled by the coronavirus pandemic.
The 14-step SIV application process requires significant documentation demonstrating service to the U.S. war effort, letters of recommendation, in-person interviews with U.S. consular officers, medical checks and security screenings.
In-person interviews at the U.S. embassy in Kabul were suspended in March 2020 due to the pandemic. After resuming shortly following President Biden’s inauguration, they were halted again this summer by a coronavirus outbreak at the embassy.
“Neither the refugee nor the SIV program are designed for emergency responses. They are processes with applications, interviews and security checks,” Barbara Strack, who ran the refugee division at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services from 2005 to 2018, told CBS News. “They’re really not designed to be the on-the-site intervention at the time of crisis.”
White House officials defended the administration’s response, saying they surged consular officers to Kabul and started virtual interviews to expedite the SIV process. During the first week of August, the U.S. issued 813 SIV visas, compared to 100 a week in March, officials noted.
“We’ve wasted too much time”
The SIV applicants who were transported earlier this summer to the Fort Lee Army base in Virginia had already completed their security screenings. The Pentagon has also been preparing to house other Afghan allies at Forts Bliss and McCoy in Texas and Wisconsin, respectively.
Biden administration officials have said that applicants at the early stages of the process will likely be taken to third countries, like Qatar, where a U.S. air base has been housing some evacuated Afghans.
Those relocated to third countries who are not eligible for the SIV program could qualify for U.S. refugee resettlement, including under a newly created category for Afghans who worked for American media outlets or non-governmental organizations.
But advocates are pushing the Biden administration to evacuate Afghans directly to the U.S. and allow them to complete their immigration proceedings there, especially given that no agreements with third countries have yet been publicly announced.
Sunil Varghese, policy director at the International Refugee Assistance Project, said the U.S. can’t guarantee adequate conditions, access to counsel and due process, and other safeguards for Afghans placed in third countries. If they are relocated to the U.S., they can also seek asylum, he noted.
“We’ve wasted too much time begging other countries to take our allies,” Varghese said. “The focus all along should have been on how we bring these people to the U.S. as quickly as possible.”
Transporting at-risk Afghans to the U.S. who have not been issued visas would likely require the use of parole, an immigration tool that can be employed on humanitarian grounds. Advocates and a bipartisan group of lawmakers have urged the Biden administration to admit vulnerable Afghans through this policy.
There’s historical precedent for doing so. In the 1970s, the U.S. used the parole authority to resettle tens of thousands of Vietnamese refugees after the fall of Saigon, noted Amanda Demmer, a Virginia Tech historian who studies war and migration.
Freshta, whose family remains stranded in Afghanistan, said she doesn’t believe the Taliban’s assurance that Afghans who helped the U.S. will not be harmed, saying their past actions demonstrate they can’t be trusted.
“My family has been persecuted for as long as I can remember, since I was a toddler,” she said.