WASHINGTON — As a presidential candidate, Joe Biden explicitly campaigned against President Donald Trump’s exclusionary immigration policies, condemning his efforts to ban Muslim immigrants, curtail refugee resettlement, and separate families at the Southern border.
Once in office, he promised the country would “reestablish our reputation as being a haven for people in need.”
Yet a defining image of the first year of his presidency could be of Afghans clinging to the landing gear of a departing US military plane amid a Taliban takeover, as the Biden administration wound down the country’s 20-year war in Afghanistan without a clear plan to safely evacuate tens of thousands of Afghans who aided that effort.
Now, Afghans who served as translators for American soldiers then waited years for US visas are hiding, burning the evidence of their work, or making life-or-death decisions about whether to risk a trip to the airport. Some, advocates say, have already been killed.
Refugee advocacy organizations and some of Biden’s fellow Democrats say the chaos was preventable, that they have been warning the administration for months to move faster on visa processing and evacuations. It further deepens their distrust after Biden’s decision in May to keep overall refugee admissions at the historic lows favored by Trump, a decision Biden reversed following an outcry.
“It’s a tragedy and it was completely avoidable,” said Sunil Varghese, policy director of the International Refugee Assistance Project, or IRAP, which represents several thousand Afghans who are seeking Special Immigrant Visas.
‘The president said human rights would be the central approach to his foreign policy. I don’t think we’ve seen action.’
Sunil Varghese, policy directory of the International Refugee Assistance Project
“The president said human rights would be the central approach to his foreign policy,” Varghese said. “I don’t think we’ve seen action.”
According to the State Department, about 20,000 Afghans are now at some point in the process of applying for Special Immigrant Visas, which are designed to give Afghans and Iraqis who helped the United States in its wars a path to resettle in the United States. The process, as dictated by Congress, is cumbersome and can take as long as three years. Visa recipients’ family members are eligible to travel with them, so advocates estimate 70,000 or more Afghans are waiting to move with the program.
White House officials say they inherited a backlogged visa system from Trump and have made multiple efforts to speed up the process. They issued more than 5,600 Special Immigrant Visas to Afghans between April and July — the fastest rate in history — and say more than 3,500 applicants and family members have arrived in the US since Jan 1.
But thousands more are still waiting. Among them is a woman known as Fatima, a women’s rights advocate who first applied for her visa in 2018, believing her work with US-funded projects would make her a target of the Taliban.
“I can’t face them as a lone woman in this situation,” she said in a recording she made Wednesday afternoon and provided to IRAP. “They can find … us any moment, any day, and kill us all.”
Advocates began reaching out privately to Biden’s advisers and the State Department during the presidential transition to urge them to move more people out faster, arguing that Afghans who assisted the United States would be especially vulnerable after the looming military withdrawal date. But the administration resisted taking sweeping steps to address that deadline, such as a mass evacuation of all Afghan allies whose visas were in process.
“What we’ve seen take place in the last week of Afghan families and children desperately overrunning the tarmac with nothing but the clothes on their backs, fleeing a war-torn country, sadly it’s heart-wrenching but it’s not surprising to me,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services. “We knew this was coming.”
The pressure on the Biden administration to act has also come from both parties on Capitol Hill.
“In the last few months I’ve been extremely direct with the administration that they need to conduct an evacuation. Simply processing visas is not going to be enough, and I do not know why they couldn’t understand that,” said Representative Seth Moulton, a Salem Democrat, in an interview earlier this week.
Republican Senators Mike Lee and Mitt Romney of Utah released a joint statement saying, “We have a duty and moral obligation to assist these brave men and women.”
At times this week, Biden has come off as out-of-touch with the Afghans’ plight, further alienating immigration advocates. In his first remarks addressing the fall of the country to the Taliban on Monday, he said part of the reason evacuations had not started sooner was that “some of the Afghans did want to leave earlier” — a point that was vigorously disputed by refugee advocates who have watched their clients’ cases languish for years.
“It is beyond absurd to claim that Afghans don’t want to leave,” said Michael Breen, chief executive of Human Rights First, a Washington-based advocacy organization that has said the Biden administration is solely to blame for the failure to evacuate more Afghan allies. “We literally have Afghans so desperate that they’re clinging to the wheels of American aircraft and falling to their death.”
Biden also said he did not want to trigger a crisis of confidence in the Afghan government by evacuating more refugees earlier.
On Wednesday, when pressed about that image from Monday during an interview with ABC News, Biden interrupted, appearing defensive. “That was four, five days ago,” he said.
‘We have a moral obligation to help those who helped us. And I feel the urgency deeply.’
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, on Afghan citizens who aided US troops there
Biden said on Wednesday the US would be moving quickly to evacuate more Afghans from the Kabul airport in the coming days. In a press briefing the same day, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said, “We have a moral obligation to help those who helped us. And I feel the urgency deeply.”
But a State Department spokesperson who declined to speak on the record said more than half of the applicants for the special visas are at an initial stage of the process, and “need to take action” before their applications can be processed — a claim that angers advocates who wonder how exactly people are supposed to deal with red tape when they are hiding from the Taliban.
“They’re blaming our own allies for their failure to have a functioning application process and using that as an an excuse,” said Becca Heller, executive director of IRAP. “It’s morally reprehensible.”
The conflict comes after immigration advocates had to pressure the administration to lift its cap on refugees from the historic low of 15,000 resettlements implemented by the Trump administration, which Biden initially declined to do in April. After a backlash, he revised it up to 62,500, but the pace of overall refugee resettlement in the United States this year is still at a historic low.
Advocates largely blame Trump’s dismantling of the refugee resettlement system for the trickle of resettlements so far this year, and they have been heartened to see the pace pick up over the course of the year. But they also suspect that Republicans’ seizure of the narrative around the surge of migrants at the nation’s Southern border has made Biden and his advisers reluctant to throw open the doors to refugees.
“They are scared of the backlash they imagine would come,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. “That small circle around the president has no experience with immigrant and refugee policy.”
Multiple polls conducted this summer have shown voters rate Biden lower on the issue of immigration than on other issues, including the economy and battling the pandemic, which may be driven by the rise in the number of migrants seeking to cross the Southern border.
‘These people should not be made to suffer because we were surprised by the Taliban’s rapid taking of the entire country.’
David Leopold, an immigration lawyer who was part of Biden's transition team
David Leopold, an Ohio immigration lawyer who was part of Biden’s transition team, defended the administration as “much more humane and caring” than its predecessors, and urged the administration to get Afghans out of the country first and process their visas later, either in the United States or in other countries.
“These people should not be made to suffer because we were surprised by the Taliban’s rapid taking of the entire country,” Leopold said. “We have a duty to them, we have an obligation to this country.”
Jim Puzzanghera of the Globe staff contributed to this report.