As shocking images of Afghans desperately clinging to airplanes destined for the U.S. and other allied countries played out on cable news, the Biden administration was scrambling to figure out what to do with the thousands of refugees expecting to come stateside.
And now, after coming under fire for its disastrous mishandling of the drawdown and its complete underestimation of Taliban forces, the U.S. government is calling on volunteers from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to help process the visas of Afghan nationals trying to escape the seemingly inevitable reprisal killings and oppression that will come with the return of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Why DHS isn’t simply assigning workers to the emergency evacuation effort instead of asking for volunteer hands to rise is unknown; the department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
As per an internal note sent earlier this week to the workforce of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) viewed by VICE News—and first reported on by CNN—the sudden influx and critical need to accelerate the processing of special immigration visas (SIVs) means employees from across the department are needed to fill the void. (The special visa program came into effect during the War on Terror years to allow Afghan and Iraqi citizens affected by the conflicts an expedited path to working and living in the U.S.)
“As the situation in Afghanistan continues to evolve, USCIS is working with departmental agencies to determine the total number of processing sites needed at various U.S. military bases,” says the memo, with some of the expected refugees evacuated from Kabul already being housed and processed at Fort Lee, with other military bases across the country expected to also shelter refugees. “We are looking for volunteers from across the agency to support rapid response temporary on-site immigration processing and adjudications.”
“Individuals will have the opportunity to work with the Department of Defense, Department of State and nongovernmental organizations, as well as other Department of Homeland Security and USCIS colleagues to support this extraordinary initiative.”
The volunteers will be detailed for up to 60 days, per the memo.
SIV applicants and other “vulnerable Afghans,” as the Biden administration has dubbed them, range from interpreters and soldiers to journalists and local embassy workers who fought and worked alongside NATO forces and now face grave danger. Not only has the Taliban reportedly summarily executed several Afghan National Army soldiers outside their homes in recent days, but images have emerged of the Taliban tying nooses around the necks of accused thieves, painting their faces black, and trotting them through the streets in what looks like a return to its harsh judicial system from two decades ago.
All of these reprisals were widely foreseen by a chorus of analysts and experts, but the Biden administration appeared completely unprepared for the sudden and rapid Taliban takeover of all of Afghanistan. Late Monday, President Biden directed Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to use the Migration and Refugee Assistance Act, which would help expedite government action to account for the sudden and "unexpected urgent refugee and migration needs of refugees” coming out of Afghanistan. President Biden made the decision only hours after steadfastly denying he had made any mistakes withdrawing from Afghanistan and instead blamed the Afghan military for not fighting hard enough against the invasion of the Taliban into government-controlled lands.
In a news conference yesterday, State Department spokesperson Ned Price offered little on the status of Afghan refugees, but did acknowledge the upsetting images coming from Kabul.
“We continue to pursue all options to relocate interested and qualified Afghan SIV applicants and their immediate families,” said Price, “as well as other vulnerable Afghans.”
A joint Pentagon and State Department statement, released on Monday, reiterated that up to 6,000 American troops would be helping to secure the airport in Kabul in the coming days in order to complete the evacuation of U.S. citizens and Afghan nationals who worked with American forces.
“Tomorrow and over the coming days, we will be transferring out of the country thousands of American citizens who have been resident in Afghanistan, as well as locally employed staff of the U.S. mission in Kabul and their families and other particularly vulnerable Afghan nationals,” it said, pointing out that SIV applicants are being heavily considered in the evacuation efforts. “And we will accelerate the evacuation of thousands of Afghans eligible for U.S. Special Immigrant Visas, nearly 2,000 of whom have already arrived in the United States over the past two weeks.”