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IRAP Dispatch from Fort Lee: When Home Is the Mouth of a Shark

This past week, teams of IRAP staff have been traveling to Fort Lee, a military base in Virginia. There, we’ve met with recently arrived Afghans who, with less than a week’s notice, packed up what they could of their lives and boarded a flight out of the only country they’ve ever known. We’ve met parents with young children who did not know where they were going next or did not know anyone where they were headed. We’ve met people who were forced to leave loved ones behind and whose first and last questions to us were whether we could help bring their families here.

These Afghan families are the first group to arrive in the United States under President Biden’s “Operation Allies Refuge,” an effort to relocate Afghans who are at risk because of their work on behalf of the United States, especially now that U.S. troops are withdrawing. These Afghans are eligible and have applied for Special Immigrant Visas (SIV), a pathway to permanent residency in the United States that Congress created in 2009 in recognition of the critical work that Afghans have done to support the U.S. mission. But the SIV program has long been beset with delays and other obstacles. Despite the Congressional mandate that the visas should be processed in nine months, an applicant can reasonably expect to wait four years for a visa. (IRAP is suing the Departments of State and Homeland Security over these systemic delays).

As grand as the words may sound, “Operation Allies Refuge” is limited compared to the scale of the problem created by the U.S. withdrawal and the broken SIV program. The operation arranges expedited flights to the United States for a small subset of the over ten thousand Afghans who are stuck in the SIV application process. Only several hundred families at the very final stage of SIV processing are eligible: specifically, those who already have visas and had been planning to travel in the next few months, and those who only need to complete a medical exam before being issued visas. The latter group arrives in the United States with a temporary status called “parole,” completes medical exams in Fort Lee, and must submit additional immigration forms so that they can adjust to lawful permanent resident status. IRAP attorneys responded to the emergency call for volunteers along with other immigration attorneys and Afghan community members. (This cumbersome parole situation should end soon since Congress recently passed a law that allows visas to be issued before medical exams are completed). 

While IRAP is proud to join the effort at Fort Lee and help with some of the arrivals’ urgent legal needs, Operation Allies Refuge leaves out the vast majority of Afghans who need a path to safety: over ten thousand SIV applicants who have been waiting patiently for their visas; children and parents hoping to join their family in the United States; and others at risk from the Taliban, including journalists and human rights advocates. And there is no reason for Operation Allies Refuge to be so limited. The United States is capable of large-scale evacuations and has successfully completed them before, for example at the end of the Vietnam War and more recently, in 1996, in evacuating thousands of Iraqi Kurds to Guam.

The courage of the Afghan families we’ve met at Fort Lee reminds us of the poet Warsan Shire’s words: “no one leaves home unless / home is the mouth of a shark.” Everyday we hear news of the worsening situation in Afghanistan, and the United States is choosing to leave behind tens of thousands of people. Now is the time for the United States to live up to its commitments to the Afghan people and bring them to safety.

IRAP staff work in Ft. Lee.