BY JOSEPH M. AZAM, OPINION CONTRIBUTOR – 06/03/22
Hours after the last C-17 transport jet departed Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport last Aug. 31, President Joe Biden addressed the nation to remind us that he had kept his campaign promise to end the war in Afghanistan. The irony of the president focusing on an honored commitment relating to Afghanistan has haunted many of us who work on evacuating at-risk Afghans ever since, resurfacing again last week in a court filing by the government.
On May 24, the Biden administration quietly filed a motion in federal court asking to be relieved of a court-ordered plan to promptly adjudicate long-pending Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applications from Afghans and Iraqis who are seeking safe passage to the U.S.
The SIV program was set up by Congress in 2007 and 2009 so that Iraqis and Afghans, respectively, could assist American military efforts while knowing that their futures would be secure in the U.S. should their service in support of America’s missions put them and their families in danger.
The court order in question sought to enforce a bipartisan congressionally mandated requirement that the State Department process these visa requests in no more than 9 months in order to make the promise of protection meaningful — a requirement that had been so egregiously disregarded that it required intervention by a federal judge who found the government’s conduct to be unlawful.
Despite these court obligations and despite knowing that tens of thousands of at-risk Afghan allies were awaiting processing of their visas, the Biden administration did virtually nothing in the lead up to its withdrawal from Afghanistan to ensure that those Afghans would not be left behind.
Now the administration is asking a judge to release it not only from its obligation to the court but also from its commitments to SIV applicants who still believe what they were told: their service to America would not be forgotten and, for Afghan applicants, that they would not be left to an almost certain death at the hands of the Taliban.
While many Afghans were able to leave the country in the chaos that ensued last August, even by the State Department’s own admission, the vast majority of those whom the United States evacuated were not the long-pending SIV applicants. As the Taliban assumed control of the country, SIV applicants went into hiding and remain in fear for their lives and the lives of their families.
I know because I still hear from them and those focused on their plight almost every day.
I hear from translators and interpreters who worked alongside American forces for nearly two decades in some of the most dangerous and inhospitable territory in which the U.S. military has ever operated.
I hear from teenage children who grew up with parents working on U.S.-led development projects and who have now taken on the mantle of securing the debt of safe passage owed to their families by the U.S.
I hear from ordinary Americans selflessly working on resettling Afghan evacuees, who have heard about the horrors these people, particularly SIV visa recipients, have escaped. They cannot believe that our government would turn its back on anyone who it had promised to rescue from the scenario unfolding in Afghanistan right now.
I also hear from many furious American veterans — many of whom made promises on behalf of their country that their government now appears unwilling to honor. They talk about the lives saved and the mission-critical support they received from many of these SIV applicants and they, like me, sit in disbelief that their government would break trust in such a profound way and, in doing so, make them unwilling accomplices in this fissure.
In its most recent filing with the court, the administration argues that circumstances in Afghanistan have changed. This is true, of course, but those changes largely stemmed from policy choices the U.S. made and have only made the need for a court-ordered remedy more urgent. For at-risk SIV applicants, circumstances have changed too: many are now just one house-to-house search by the Taliban away from torture and death. Congress should act to ensure better access to care for millions of cancer survivorsBoth parties searching for midterm magic
The thrust of the administration’s argument is that it has done all it can for Afghans at this point and that it has other crises requiring its attention — a claim that is shocking and offensive given the many ways the Administration has found to fail Afghans. Its position appears even more indefensible given the very modest requirement imposed by the court: a good faith effort by the State Department to speed up processing of these SIV applications and to report on its progress. That the government would seek to be relieved of such a basic measure of accountability does not reflect well on an administration that in its first day promised to bring transparency and truth back to government.
Forever wars don’t end just because we say they are over, especially not for those who have been left behind and have no choice but to keep fighting. If the president is not willing to uphold this country’s promises, I hope that our courts will show the world that we are a nation that abides by commitments, especially those enshrined in our laws.
Joseph M. Azam, is a lawyer and serves as Board Chair of the Afghan-American Foundation, a national 501(c)(3) organization focused on representing and advancing the interests of Afghan-Americans. TAGS AFGHANISTAN WAR JOE BIDEN SIV PROGRAM TALIBAN