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Whom Should We Take from Afghanistan?

An amateur picture obtained by Reuters shows evacuees from Afghanistan boarding an aircraft of the German Air Force in Kabul, Afghanistan, August 18, 2021. (Handout via Reuters)
There’s a case for accepting military interpreters. Beyond that, we should be discerning about whom we bring to the U.S.

Even if President Biden and his team hadn’t utterly botched the withdrawal from Afghanistan, there would have been widespread calls for admitting the many Afghans fleeing the inevitable Taliban takeover. But the humiliating spectacle of the past week has fueled the narrative that the United States is morally obliged to admit huge numbers of Afghans.

The Left is fairly united on the question of what to do. The Right, however, is divided. Some favor expanded asylum and welcome refugee resettlement. Strong pushback — stronger and swifter than I expected — from others, however, has stressed the security risks of mass refugee resettlement. I lean toward the latter camp. But it’s worth noting that the whole discussion has conflated different groups of Afghans and obscured rather than illuminated the practical question: Whom should we take in from Afghanistan?

The first priority, of course, is Americans. That this even needs to be said is bizarre. Though it was shocking when Defense secretary Lloyd Austin said, in a press conference with Joint Chiefs chairman General Milley, that they’d keep evacuating Americans from Kabul “until the clock runs out.” The ominous suggestion (since qualified) was that some of our fellow citizens will be left to fend for themselves.

That aside, everyone agrees that Afghans who served with U.S. troops as interpreters, risking their lives on combat missions, should be offered the opportunity for resettlement in the U.S. As Representative Michael Waltz (R., Fla.) told Politico, “When we’re talking merit-based immigration, I can’t think of anybody who has deserved it more than those who stand and fight with us and were willing to take a bullet.”

But that’s not a huge number. The Special Immigrant Visa for translators/interpreters was created by Congress in 2007 for both Iraqis and Afghans. Over the entire existence of the program, through March of this year, only 748 Afghan interpreters have moved here on this visa, plus a larger number of family members, for a total of about 2,100. (See Table A-2 here.)

Even the admission of people from this core group is not without risk. “Green on blue” attacks, in which seemingly cooperative Afghans, such as interpreters, turn on the U.S. or allied forces (including other Afghans) with whom they serve, have been a serious problem over the past 20 years. Nonetheless, this is a risk we should, and will, take.

But like so many other parts of the broader immigration debate, a small, sympathetic group is leveraged by opponents of immigration limits to push for much broader admissions. (We’ve seen this, for instance, with the attempt to use the relatively small number of illegal immigrants who have taken advantage of the extralegal DACA program as the wedge for a mass amnesty.)

This specific process of visa-creep started years ago. Congress created a second Special Immigrant Visa category for Afghans that’s both larger and less compelling than the one for military translators: Afghans who were employed by, or on behalf of, the U.S. government. That means clerks, receptionists, drivers, construction workers, food servers, et al., including those working for private companies providing contract services to the government. This program is much larger than the translators program, with about 21,000 principals having been given SIV visas since 2008, plus more than twice that for family members, for a total of about 74,000 people. That’s 35 times more than the military translators who are so often held up as representative of SIV beneficiaries.

While such workers certainly helped support the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, they should be considered separately from the “willing to take a bullet” category that Congressman Waltz referred to. In fact, most Afghans who qualify for this larger SIV program took the jobs in the first place not out of any commitment to help America build a new Afghanistan but because the jobs offered good pay in real money. Moreover, the prospect of scoring a visa to get out of Afghanistan was itself a major appeal of working for the U.S. government in Afghanistan. The State Department’s Office of Inspector General found that the Kabul embassy had high turnover of Afghan staff because the local hires applied for Special Immigrant Visas as soon as they qualified (after one year, later two years, of employment) and then left for the U.S. as soon as they could.

Earlier this month, the State Department created a third avenue for an even larger, and even less compelling, group of Afghans to move to the U.S. It’s called the Priority 2 Direct Access refugee program, and it could be as large as the president wants it to be when he sets the overall refugee-resettlement ceiling for a given fiscal year. A Priority 2 designation means that an entire group has been deemed to be refugees, so that no individual fear of persecution has to be demonstrated. The Afghans eligible for this further expansion of access to the United States include those who worked for the U.S. government or private contractors, but not long enough to qualify for an SIV; those who worked on projects funded by U.S. government grants; and those who worked for U.S.-based media companies or nongovernmental organizations. This is an unwarranted expansion of the category of true need. Yet the impulse to equate employment for, say, private media corporations to military service is widespread.

It’s very possible, even likely, that the Taliban will also fail to make that distinction, and will target people eligible for the P-2 program. That’s a strong argument for helping such people get out of Afghanistan; it is not an argument for bringing them into the United States.

It’s also worth noting that U.S.-affiliated Iraqis also had a P-2 designation, but it was suspended earlier this year because of widespread fraud. It is reasonable to expect a similar level of fraud for the new P-2 designation for Afghans. But as dubious as the P-2 designation is, it would still be bounded by the annual refugee ceiling, which the president has unofficially said will be 125,000 for FY 2022, starting October 1. A formal announcement should come next month. But there’s yet a fourth means of admitting Afghans to the U.S., which is completely open-ended. That is “parole.”

In the immigration context, parole means the president’s claimed ability to allow into the U.S. literally anyone he wants, in any number, for any reason (and to give them work permits). This is based on a narrow grant of discretion by Congress to “temporarily,” “on a case-by-case basis,” allow a foreigner into the U.S. “for urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit.”

So far, the administration has said it will parole in SIV applicants rather than people with no other claim to U.S. residence, and house them at military bases while they are being processed and vetted. But even that is problematic. If their applications are rejected for some reason, the actual likelihood of deportation is essentially zero. It’s a virtual guarantee that every single Afghan flown to the U.S. is a de facto permanent resident the instant the plane touches down.

That’s why any approach to dealing with Afghan refugees should be focused on third-country processing and, for most of those fleeing the Taliban takeover, third-country resettlement. Vetting was hardly perfect even when we ruled the country, as evidenced by the green-on-blue violence, but it’s now literally impossible. That argues for admitting only those with the strongest ties to the U.S. Yet even some of them (or their alienated children in future years) may well end up betraying us.

As for the rest, we should work with other countries in the region. We should house them there, so that we don’t have to house them here. It will be an order of magnitude less expensive to support them there, is less of a security and public safety risk to Americans, and makes it much more likely they’ll return when conditions change, as they certainly will. Most of those fleeing Afghanistan will end up in neighboring Pakistan and Iran, as happened after the Soviet invasion. Refugees from among the Tajiks (between one-quarter and one-third of the country’s population) can go to Tajikistan. Uzbeks (around 10 percent) can go to Uzbekistan. And so on. We should help those countries support their neighbors and their people. But mass relocation to the United States is a nonstarter.

The current refugee regime was created in response to the failure of the Vietnam War. It was formalized in the 1980 Refugee Act. The world has changed since then. The failure in Afghanistan presents us with an opportunity to start crafting a new refugee regime, one more consistent with our national interest. We shouldn’t let dishonest elites claim that requires mass refugee admission.

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We had substantial disagreements but recognize that he will be remembered for a long, consequential career of service to a country that he loved.