Some lawmakers worry Afghan refugees will be forgotten

Some lawmakers worry Afghan refugees will be forgotten as focus turns to Ukrainians
Lawmakers are worried refugees from Afghanistan are not getting the help they need. (Lorenzo Tugnoli/The Washington Post)

The other refugee crisis: As President Biden moves to admit up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees to the United States, lawmakers and advocates are urging him not to forget about the other refugee crisis facing his administration: the thousands of Afghans still waiting to be admitted to the country.

The White House says that its push to accept Ukrainian refugees — announced last week while Biden was in Europe — won’t divert resources or attention from its ongoing effort to help Afghans who aided American forces and their families come to the United States.

“Our commitment to resettling Afghans — particularly those who served on behalf of the U.S. effort in Afghanistan — remains steadfast,” a White House spokesperson said in a statement to the Early. “That commitment will not wane as we open our doors to Ukrainians.”

Some lawmakers aren’t so sure.

Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) praised Biden’s decision to accept Ukrainian refugees and said he thought the administration had learned from the chaotic effort to help Afghans flee their country. Biden announced his Ukrainian refugee plan only a month after Russian invaded, Moulton noted, in contrast to the administration’s foot-dragging in Afghanistan.

But Moulton said he was concerned the Ukrainian effort would distract attention from the unfinished Afghan one.

“There are still Afghans being killed by the Taliban because we haven’t gotten them out of the country,” he said.

The administration’s steadfast commitment, Moulton added, has been mostly “steadfastly slow.”

Moulton and Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Mich.) told the Early they’ve been trying for months to help Afghan evacuees reach the United States but have been stymied by bureaucratic delays. Meijer, who served in Afghanistan, has pressed the State Department every week for more than six months to help the wife and young son of one of his former Afghan comrades, without success.

  • “It’s enraging to theoretically be in a position of power and to be absolutely impotent in the face of the callous bureaucratic indifference of the Biden administration,” Meijer said.
A ‘broken’ system

Some lawmakers who have pressed the Biden administration to make it easier for Afghans who aided American forces to come to the United States say they think the administration can juggle the Ukrainian and Afghan efforts.

“If they make it a priority to dedicate the resources to it, I think it can be done,” Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.), one of eight lawmakers who sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas last week urging them to take steps to make it easier for Ukrainians to come to the United States, told the Early.

But the Biden administration still hasn’t finished rebuilding a refugee program that former president Donald Trump spent four years undermining, leading other lawmakers to worry about the government’s ability to process as many as 100,000 more refugees.

“It’s a legitimate concern, because our refugee resettlement system was broken during the Trump administration and has not yet recovered,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.).

There are significant differences between the Afghans trying to escape the Taliban and the 3.8 million Ukrainians who’ve fled the Russian assault on their country. It remains unclear how many Ukrainians will seek to come to the United States, with many expressing a desire to stay closer to home so it will be easier to return someday. The Afghans, meanwhile, mostly don’t expect to go back.

Several Democratic lawmakers who applauded Biden’s decision to accept 100,000 Ukrainians told the Early that they wished the administration would take a similar approach to accepting refugees from the rest of the world.

  • Biden’s announcement last week “is the type of humane and compassionate policy response that we should equitably extend to families fleeing from humanitarian disasters in Haiti, Cameroon, and other non-European countries,” Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), a co-chair of the House Haiti Caucus, said in statement to the Early.

Malinowski has been talking with the administration about standing up a similar effort to take in the thousands of Russians who have fled their country in recent weeks.

“These are the best and brightest people in Russia, and it would be overwhelmingly in our interest to make Putin’s loss our gain,” he said.

Big backlog

The administration is still working out the details of how it will use to admit the Ukrainians. One option, known as “humanitarian parole,” has a backlog of tens of thousands of Afghans who have applied, as the New York Times‘ Miriam Jordan reported last month.

But refugee advocates said that taking in thousands of Ukrainians via the same program wouldn’t necessarily slow it down.

“It’s not like there’s a dedicated group of people that are processing Afghan parole applications every day that would then be diverted to processing Ukraine applications,” said Becca Heller, the executive director of the International Refugee Assistance Project. “There’s just a pile of applications sitting there, not being processed.”

If the administration decides to admit Ukrainians through humanitarian paroles and redirects resources to help process their applications, it could actually help Afghans whose applications have languished, Heller said.

“Those same resources could be used to clear the rest of the backlog and then a rising tide could lift everyone’s boat,” she said.

Some lawmakers worry Afghan refugees will be forgotten