It was easy to open our doors to Afghan refugees 40 years ago because they were fleeing our adversaries, the Soviets. This time around it may be tempting to forget the Afghans because, after all, those of us not from military families had the luxury of rarely thinking about Afghanistan despite our nearly 20-year war there.
But to forget would punctuate the end of that war with lasting shame and dishonor for the United States. Having failed at a goal of nation-building in Afghanistan that was never realistic to begin with, the least we can do is welcome Afghan refugees to the United States, where they can build a new home — and help rebuild our own nation, which needs the ingenuity, resourcefulness and hard work of immigrants.
The first step should be straightforward: The United States must offer refuge to any Afghan national who directly assisted this nation in the fight against the Taliban. That includes hundreds of interpreters, translators and others who worked for and with the U.S. military and its diplomatic corps. As our allies, they are likely targets of Taliban suspicion and vengeance, and worthy beneficiaries of refuge. U.S. law, history and conscience support evacuations and resettlements. Many have left their native country over the past months. Many more are counting on the United States to ensure that the Taliban allows them safe passage to the Kabul airport, and to keep the evacuations going.
President Joe Biden has committed to staying at the airport until some 10,000-plus American citizens are evacuated — but he should extend that pledge to all the Afghans who helped us and want out. He must also push back forcefully against xenophobes and Islamophobes (including former President Trump) who see refugees as a security risk. He should remind Americans that these Afghans in fact helped us fight Islamist militants and extremists.
What about others?
The second step is a more vexing dilemma: What of the Afghan journalists, teachers, professionals and tradespeople who opposed the Taliban and supported the American presence or the national government, at great risk to their own lives and their families’? What about the tens of thousands of people who were born, educated and became parents in Afghanistan during the last two decades with an expectation of civil rights and ambitions for their children — hopes instilled by the U.S. presence and dashed by its exit? What about the many women and girls for whom the last 20 years represented a measure of freedom not known in their country previously, and unlikely to be experienced in the near future?
With Taliban fighters patrolling the streets of Kabul, it’s tempting to see Afghanistan as essentially the same place it was when the U.S. invaded and temporarily drove the Taliban from power in 2001, or when the Soviet Union invaded in 1979, or even when the British first captured Kabul in the 19th century. But two-thirds of Afghans are under the age of 25; an entire generation grew up in the shadow of the American occupation. Having benefited from American educators, American charities and American relief programs, many will not want to turn the clock back. Many may wish to become Americans themselves.
The American exodus from Afghanistan has been compared, appropriately, with the fall of Saigon in 1975, when U.S. troops and diplomats made a frantic and hasty retreat, thousands of Vietnamese and others from Southeast Asian nations desperately sought to leave with them, and hundreds of thousands who were left behind made daring escapes in unseaworthy boats over the ensuing 20 years.
American enthusiasm for aiding the people it left behind was muted, to say the least. Congress found little support among the Americans for refugee resettlement. The general attitude was that the nation had lost a war and suffered an ignominious defeat, and didn’t want or need any reminders. It was time to move on, especially at a time when the economy was suffering at home.
Senate opposition to resettling Southeast Asian refugees was bipartisan. Sen. Joe Biden, Democrat of Delaware, was particularly skeptical. He complained that the administration was hiding how many refugees it wanted to accommodate.
'We're a country built by immigrants'
But President Gerald R. Ford, to his great credit, was adamant about America’s obligation. He said the nation had to open its heart and its doors, much as it did for hundreds of thousands of refugees following Hungary’s failed 1956 attempt to throw off Soviet occupation and Cuba’s Communist revolution of 1959.
“I am primarily very upset because the United States has had a long tradition of opening its doors to immigrants of all countries,” he said at a May 6, 1975, news conference, as reported by the New York Times. “We’re a country built by immigrants from all areas of the world, and we’ve always been a very humanitarian nation.”
In the end, Congress passed (with Biden’s support) the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1975 and promptly resettled more than 130,000 people. The U.S. eventually welcomed 1.3 million Southeast Asian “boat people” and other refugees — but only after many thousands lost their lives at sea or in desolate refugee camps after years of suffering.
It was both a great moment, as the largest refugee resettlement in American history, and a stain, as the delay caused needless pain.
Refugees and their descendants are integral parts of American society.
But the U.S. goes through spasms of nativism. In 1939, this nation turned away a ship carrying more than 900 Jewish refugees escaping a Europe threatened with domination by Nazi Germany. They were sent back; nearly a third were later murdered in the Holocaust. The plight of the refugees of the St. Louis is an everlasting shame.
More recently, our country saw waves of Islamophobia after the 9/11 attacks and after the Islamic State terrorist attacks in 2014-16, which was followed by Trump’s so-called “Muslim ban.” That too is an everlasting shame.
Clean up our mess
The U.S. should not limit its help to Afghans who were on the U.S. payroll and are now eligible for special immigrant visas. It should actively aid, evacuate and help resettle Afghans trying to escape from the Taliban regime. It should grant temporary protected status to Afghans, as it has done with nationals of more than 20 other troubled nations, including Venezuela, Syria and Somalia.
Afghan Americans already have strong communities in the U.S. because, tragically, they were displaced from their homeland following the Soviet invasion in 1979, and because this nation embraced them. Thousands established a presence in communities around the country, notably here in Los Angeles, in Fremont (in California’s East Bay), in Chicago and northern Virginia. They have become as integral to American life as the millions who came before them — the Vietnamese, Laotians, Cambodians, Hungarians and Cubans, among the many waves of refugees and immigrants, colonists, slaves and Indigenous people who built, and are building, the nation.
The U.S. cannot resettle every woman in every nation who is denied the right to an education, or every person whose treatment falls short of what can reasonably be deemed acceptable. We went into Afghanistan to remove the Taliban and stayed in the misguided notion that we could bestow on others the freedom and abundance with which we have been blessed. We have learned, and unlearned, and learned again that we cannot save the world with military invasion. The best we can do is to clean up after our failures, and that includes taking in not merely those who helped us — again, that’s the easy part — but those in the most immediate danger in those nations where we failed.
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