Refugee advocates are running out of patience with President Joe Biden’s administration, as their high hopes for progress after four years of hostility from former President Donald Trump curdle into a belief the Biden White House is more concerned with avoiding GOP attacks than with helping vulnerable people overseas.
The ongoing chaos surrounding Kabul Airport has driven home the administration’s missteps and lack of progress on refugee issues. The United States has accepted just over 6,000 refugees this calendar year, far closer to Trump-era totals than to the more than 80,000 refugees admitted in the final year of President Barack Obama’s administration.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, along with refugee groups, have spent the past week blasting the White House for its handling of evacuations from Afghanistan, and for not moving fast enough to save refugees and other vulnerable groups trapped inside the country.
There are currently more than 17,000 Afghan nationals — as well as an estimated 53,000 of their family members — awaiting visa approval through the Special Immigrant Visas (SIV) program. The U.S. brought over approximately 2,300 Afghans as part of the program from January to July, and another 2,000 over the last week.
The White House says it has cut the time necessary to approve SIV visas in half, and has issued more than 5,500 between April and July. But advocates say it needs to move faster.
“They seem to be afraid. They seem to be operating out of fear that being a bit bolder on issues with refugees, asylees and migrants will somehow cost them politically,” said former Housing Secretary Julian Castro, who made improving the country’s refugee system a central part of his 2020 presidential campaign. “This is an area where there’s growing disappointment and impatience ― and the stirrings of real anger ― towards the administration.”
“They seem to be operating out of fear that being a bit bolder on issues with refugees, asylees and migrants will somehow cost them politically.”
The administration insists political fear is not shaping its decisions, and any delays are the result of fixing a system broken and neglected by the prior administration. In the case of Afghanistan, the administration boasts it’s rapidly picking up the pace of evacuations ― even if relatively few of those evacuees are Afghans so far.
“This is not true,” said a senior administration official when asked if delays in evacuating Afghans were politically motivated. “We would never let the prospect of bad-faith criticism from the same people who orchestrated the Muslim ban and decimated America’s refugee pipeline keep us from keeping faith with our Afghan partners.”
On Friday, Biden spoke about his administration’s plans to increase the speed of evacuations from Afghanistan. Even then, he only committed under questioning from reporters to helping every Afghan who helped Americans during the U.S. occupation get out of the country.
“We want you to be able to get to the airport. Contact us,” Biden said during the press conference, addressing interpreters and others who may be stranded. “We’ll see whatever we can do to get you there. We’ve got to get you out. We are committed to deal with you, your wife and your child.”
These assurances weren’t enough, Paul O’Brien, executive director of Amnesty International USA, said in a statement Friday afternoon.
“Vulnerable Afghans at risk were looking for reassurance from President Biden. They didn’t get it,” O’Brien said. “They want to know that they’ll be processed for departure regardless of their eligibility for narrow and complicated visa programs. They want to know that they’ll be able to reach the airport in safety. They want to know that the U.S. will keep running evacuations until they and their family have had a chance to flee from harm’s way. President Biden could have used his speech to reassure them, but he didn’t.”
Refugee advocates question why the Biden administration didn’t ramp up admissions of Afghans several months ago, given that the withdrawal has been in process. They want the administration to start providing commercial flights, ease visa requirements and pressure the Taliban to make it safer to reach Kabul Airport.
International Refugee Assistance Project, a nonprofit pro bono law firm that provides legal services to refugees, filed a series of legal petitions with the U.S. State Department on Thursday demanding that the government fulfilled its legal obligations to evacuate Afghans who worked with U.S. forces during the 20-year war.
In a press release, the group declared that the “Biden Administration has done far too little” for those Afghans “despite knowing, since the day it called for the U.S. troop withdrawal, that thousands of Afghans were still languishing in the broken U.S. visa system.”
“Seven months into the Biden administration and it’s a lot of unfulfilled promises,” Adam Bates, IRAP’s policy counsel, told HuffPost. “The administration has not proven that it’s committed to this yet. Statements and memoranda are great, but in terms of what really matters is actually protecting people not just protecting people on paper.”
This is not the first time the Biden administration faced staunch opposition for its handling of refugees. Earlier this year, it was criticized for missing its deadline and delaying the presidential determination that would set the number for how many refugees were allowed into the country.
Despite initially pledging to raise the cap to 62,500 refugees for this fiscal year and 125,000 for the next, Biden did not sign the directive by March 2021, forcing hundreds of refugees to cancel their flights to the U.S. as they awaited approval.
When Biden finally made the decision weeks later, the White House initially announced it would keep Trump’s limited refugee ceiling of 15,000, and would continue to ban refugees from several Muslim-majority countries — a move that sparked outrage from fellow Democrats and refugee groups. Mere hours later, the president walked back the decision and said the administration would allow 62,500 refugees during the 2021 fiscal year.
The administration is unlikely to meet that target. Doing so would be difficult: The Trump administration spent years decimating the process for admitting refugees into the U.S., and it’s a complex system that can’t be flipped back on like a switch. Still, refugee advocates believe it could be made a higher priority.
“I would hope that that takeaway here is that we need these [refugee] programs and we need these programs to be robust and the consequences of not doing so are really tragic across the globe,” said JC Hendrickson, senior director of policy and advocacy at the International Rescue Committee. “What we’ve seen this year was a slow start to building back of the refugee admissions program after several years of intentional atrophy.”
Democrats made significant political hay out of Trump’s treatments of refugees and migrants ― protests after Trump implemented his ban on travel from Muslim-majority countries are often seen as the start of the so-called Resistance to his administration. Castro warned the party could pay a political price of its own if it doesn’t follow through on Biden’s promises to create a more welcoming America.
“He’s risking shattering the Democratic coalition in the years to come,” said Castro, noting growing populations of young Latino and Hispanic voters in Arizona, Texas, Georgia and North Carolina. “If we don’t make progress on immigration, you’re risking the Democratic coalition in a lot of these important electoral college states.”
Other advocates have been struck by how Biden, a politician known for his empathy who once noted his own ancestors escaped from Ireland on board a so-called “coffin ship,” has shown an occasionally callous attitude toward refugees. The president was unmoved by personal appeals from Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the refugee cap, and was dismissive of the need to take in Vietnamese refugees at the beginning of his Senate career in the 1970s.
On Friday, Biden was more sympathetic, referring to images from Kabul over the past week as “heartbreaking.” And Castro insists Biden’s heart is in the right place, but his attention might not be.
“I believe that President Biden has a good heart, where President Trump has a dark heart toward migrants,” he said. “To me, the question is whether he makes this a priority or not.”