The Next Afghan-Refugee Crisis Is Right Here in the U.S.

Without congressional action, the tens of thousands of Afghans we evacuated to the United States may be deported in the coming year.
The night before the midterm elections, Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser, addressed a packed room in the basement of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City. The topic was billed as “Common Sense and Strategy in Foreign Policy.” For an hour, Sullivan held forth on a host of topics, including Ukraine, Taiwan, digital clean energy, and Iran. For the last 15 minutes, he took questions. When this wide-ranging tour of American foreign policy concluded, I felt as though I’d witnessed an episode of mass amnesia: Afghanistan wasn’t mentioned once.

America has a long, disastrous history of forgetting when it comes to Afghanistan. Abandoning the country to Islamic radicals in the 1990s after its war with the Soviets; deprioritizing our own war after 9/11 so we could pivot to Iraq—this willful forgetting has, again and again, bred disaster. This played out most recently last year, when the collapse of the Afghan government surprised many senior officials in the U.S. government. Today, this pattern of forgetting is poised to repeat. Without congressional action, the tens of thousands of Afghans we evacuated to the United States may be deported in the coming year, and very few in Washington seem to be talking about it. The cost of this apathy will be a second Afghan evacuation, equally disastrous, this time played out in reverse, with our allies shipped back to the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan they fled.

To understand how we arrived at this looming crisis, we have to go back to August 23, 2021, when, during the withdrawal from Kabul, the Biden administration authorized the use of humanitarian parole to temporarily expedite the entry of Afghans into the United States. The preexisting Special Immigrant Visa program—which can take three years from application to approval—had proved impracticably onerous, so humanitarian parole filled the gap and eventually enabled the administration to evacuate approximately 80,000 Afghans to the United States.

Although humanitarian parole accelerated their processing, the program didn’t provide resettlement services or a clear path to long-term residency for the new arrivals. Afghans have struggled with resettlement and with securing the necessary documentation to work or attend school, as well as access to a host of other necessities. And humanitarian parole extends for only two years. Those tens of thousands of Afghans we evacuated have been living under a cloud of uncertainty, and they will soon be subject to deportation unless Congress acts by adjusting their status. The Afghan Adjustment Act—a bipartisan, bicameral piece of legislation introduced this past August—aims to do just that. Astonishingly, it’s struggling to pass.

“It’s important we get this done,” Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, told me. “Our Afghan allies who fought alongside us and those who fled the Taliban deserve better than having to live with the uncertainty of whether they’ll be able to stay in the United States.” Although the bill doesn’t face opposition from Democrats, it does face competing legislative priorities within a caucus that isn’t eager to revisit the debacle of the Afghan withdrawal.

Republicans, who will soon hold a majority in the House of Representatives, are more eager to revisit the events of August 2021. They have signaled plans to hold hearings on the subject in the next Congress, which would frame the Biden administration’s efforts in Afghanistan in an unfavorable light, with a likely focus on the human cost of the collapse in Kabul and our ad hoc effort to evacuate our allies. It’s difficult to imagine Republicans holding those hearings while they are simultaneously deporting those very same allies. Nevertheless, Republican support for the Afghan Adjustment Act has proved uneven.

Lindsey Graham of South Carolina is one of three Republican co-sponsors of the bill in the Senate. Within his party, legislation that expands immigration protections is generally a tough sell. “The Afghan Adjustment Act has received stiff opposition and legitimate criticism,” he told me. “However, I hope the critics understand that American service members who served in Afghanistan feel honor-bound to help their Afghan allies. They are right. The problems with the bill must be addressed, and I believe we can do that.” Graham remains optimistic that the bill will pass. “To turn our backs on this problem and those who provided essential support to the United States would be a stain on our honor and haunt us for generations. Finding a compromise that maintains our honor and assures our national security can and must be done.”

Outside Congress, the greatest proponents of the Afghan Adjustment Act have been, not surprisingly, veterans’ groups. Among them is With Honor Action, a nonprofit that supports the For Country Caucus, a bipartisan coalition of military-veteran legislators in the House. The co-founder of With Honor, Rye Barcott, a Marine Corps veteran, believes the Afghan Adjustment Act is likely to be blocked by both parties’ respective brands of dysfunction. “Political polarization contributes to and drives our amnesia. Congress can’t get out of its own way. There’s no special interest here, and so there’s no one who has this as their top legislative priority,” he told me. “The adults in the room all realize this is the right thing to do, but it’s not getting done. This is going to be the next betrayal, not only for the Afghans, but also for those who served alongside them.”

Although Barcott believes passage of the Afghan Adjustment Act is a moral imperative, he argues that it’s also in our “enlightened self-interest.” Last August, an International Rescue Committee report projected that Afghans evacuated to the U.S. would contribute nearly $200 million in taxes and $1.4 billion in earnings in their first year of work.

Representatives Peter Meijer, Seth Moulton, and Jason Crow—all co-sponsors of the Afghan Adjustment Act and members of the For Country Caucus—were among more than two dozen lawmakers who signed a pair of letters in the spring and early summer of 2021 warning of disaster in Afghanistan if protocols weren’t established to expedite the evacuation of our Afghan allies. Many of those same lawmakers are, right now, sounding a similar alarm, warning of a second crisis, this time entirely of our own making, if the status of our Afghan allies isn’t adjusted. But as the legislative agenda for the end of the year locks into place, their warnings seem to be going largely unheeded in Congress.

“Just like with the first withdrawal, no one believes this could actually happen,” Barcott said. “People can’t imagine that we’re going to take all these Afghans, who we evacuated at great risk and expense, and put them on planes back to Afghanistan. But if Congress doesn’t act, that’s exactly what could happen.”

A lack of foresight plagued our war in Afghanistan from its start. Now it’s plaguing the war’s aftermath. “You’ve got to wonder,” Barcott said. “What will it take for people to care?”

Elliot Ackerman is a contributing writer at The Atlantic.
The Next Afghan-Refugee Crisis Is Right Here in the U.S.