WASHINGTON (RNS) — Faith groups and other humanitarian organizations are calling on President Joe Biden to evacuate thousands of Afghans from their country alongside a planned troop withdrawal, saying the administration has a “moral imperative” to protect those who aided the U.S. during the nearly two decades of conflict in the region.
A slate of 70 organizations signed a letter delivered to the White House on Friday (June 4) demanding that the Biden administration bring to the U.S. Afghans who aided the U.S. as translators, engineers, clerks, cultural advisers and soldiers and may now be targets of the Taliban.
The president has set September 11, the anniversary of the attacks that spurred the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, as the deadline for the troop withdrawal.
“The United States has a duty to protect those who have protected us,” the letter said, adding, “As we prepare to withdraw, we cannot abandon them, especially as that service to us puts them in danger; we must bring them to safety in the United States.”
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The letter pointed to the U.S. evacuation from the early-1990s Gulf War and the roughly 130,000 people brought from Vietnam in 1975. It also called on Congress to authorize Special Immigrant Visas for those removed from Afghanistan, noting that 17,000 Afghans already have pending SIV applications.
Those who supported or assisted the U.S., as well as 53,000 of their family members, according to Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, are “already at risk because of the support they have provided to our troops and government, and face a heightened risk as the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan,” the letter read.
Religious organizations that added their name to the letter include LIRS, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Episcopal Church, Emgage Action, HIAS, American Muslim Empowerment Network, Catholic Family Center, Church World Service, Congregation B’nai Yisrael, Pax Christi USA and World Relief, among others.
In a press call with reporters, LIRS President and CEO Krish O’Mara Vignarajah said her organization sent a separate letter about the issue to the White House last month. Vignarajah said LIRS — which contracts with the federal government to resettle refugees and has helped resettle 11,000 Afghan and Iraqi SIV holders — has since conducted “private conversations” with administration officials about the evacuation but hasn’t “gotten any definite promises.”
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Vignarajah warned that the SIV application process has “broken down”: The process is normally legally mandated to take no longer than nine months but now often stretches closer to three years.
With the final troop withdrawal deadline looming, she said, “The math here is grim but clear: The U.S. has less than four months to clear a years’-long backlog.”
She called for the government to appoint a person to oversee the efforts and to increase the SIV admissions cap. And while she expressed optimism that the Pentagon is reportedly investigating conducting an evacuation of U.S. affiliated Afghans, she stressed time may be running out.
“Candidly, this is something that needs to happen now,” she said. “We can’t wait for September 11. We view this as a ticking time bomb.”
The Twitter account of the Episcopal Public Policy Network expressed a similar sentiment on Friday, saying: “We must honor our commitments to the (Afghans) who saved so many American lives. We cannot abandon them — we must evacuate them to safety in the U.S.”