Will America Take the Tired, the Poor?

The exit from Afghanistan raises the question of whether the US can and will rethink its refugee policy and its responsibilities to a world in need

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Afghans make their way to the military entrance of the airport for evacuations, in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 19, 2021. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The end of US military operations in Afghanistan and subsequent Taliban takeover is not only spotlighting the failure of nation-building and the accompanying financial corruption, bloated promises and assessments, and painful doubts that the tragic loss of life and limb was worth it. The ongoing evacuations are also casting a harsh shadow on four years of anti-refugee policymaking in the US that has made the process slower and more deadly.

Now, at a time when the final days of the US-Afghanistan saga has caused Americans and allies to freshly question whether US global leadership should ever include military intervention followed by decades-long occupation, the Biden Administration must decide whether American identity and leadership requires providing more welcoming policies and attitudes toward a rising population of global refugees.

I won’t detail the endless spewing of demagogic, racist attacks on refugees seeking asylum at the Southern border, the unconstitutional targeting of Muslim refugees with travel bans or Donald Trump’s despicable talk of “s-hole countries,” but I will note that refugee admissions into the US during the Trump years dropped to historic lows. This came at a time when refugees fleeing violence hit record highs since WWII—not even to mention the growing reality of climate-related refugees.

As Pew Research noted in 2019, the Trump administration admitted about 76,200 refugees between January 2017 and October 2019, compared with nearly 85,000 refugees admitted during the last fiscal year of the Obama administration. By 2020, Trump had capped the refugee number at 15,000, by far the lowest since the 1980 Refugee Act took effect—and a far cry from the 159,252 refugees admitted in 1981 under President Reagan or the 131,000 refugees admitted in 1992 under President George H. W. Bush.

Let’s rewind for a moment. As noted by HIAS—founded in 1881 to assist Jews fleeing persecution and pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe—the United States Refugee Act of 1980 formalized the admissions processes that were previously ad hoc, aligned the US definition of “refugee” with the internationally recognized definition and mandated annual ceilings to be set by the President in consultation with Congress. This was intended to increase rationality and effectiveness; it passed by unanimous vote in the Senate (imagine that).


Since 2014, the US has authorized 34,500 visas under its Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program, including an additional 8,000 for Afghan applicants as of July 30 this year. This total, intended for interpreters and other Afghan nationals who assisted US military personnel, only begins to address the massive numbers of Afghans who worked with Americans and now risk torture or execution at the hands of the Taliban.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) estimates that over 300,000 Afghan civilians have worked with Americans during the occupation; over 15,000 Afghans and their families have already resettled in the US; and more than 18,000 applications are pending. The IRC has said that as many as 100,000 Afghans are eligible for resettlement based on the SIV program, which has been rightly criticized for being slow and bureaucratic (typically taking more than twice the nine months mandated to handle cases) and putting the lives of many Afghans in deadly danger.

In addition, on August 2, the State Department announced a Priority 2 Designation Program, to provide access to additional endangered Afghans to the US Refugee Admissions Program who were affiliated with the US government or US government-funded programs or US-based non-governmental organizations or media organizations but did not have sufficient time in service to qualify for the SIV. This is on top of new Congressional legislation last month to streamline the SIV program.

The continuing evacuation efforts in the coming days and weeks will go a long way toward demonstrating the Biden administration’s commitment and capacity to get out Americans and allies who assisted the US effort. Make no mistake, though: This departure was going to be treacherous under any circumstances, but was surely made more deadly by Trump and Mike Pompeo who chose to sidle up to the Taliban last year and release 5,000 Taliban prisoners. The critics not only conveniently ignore this, they also imagine that the end of war is not always chaotic.

But that doesn’t let President Biden and his administration off the hook in the coming weeks and months as it must confront a growing humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and beyond. Earlier this year, after first announcing he would stick with the Trump cap of 15,000 refugee admissions this year, he backtracked after a loud backlash and upped the number to 62,500 with the promise to raise it next fiscal year to 125,000.

“It is important to take this action today to remove any lingering doubt in the minds of refugees around the world who have suffered so much, and who are anxiously waiting for their new lives to begin,” Biden said in May, adding:

“The United States Refugee Admissions Program embodies America’s commitment to protect the most vulnerable, and to stand as a beacon of liberty and refuge to the world. It’s a statement about who we are, and who we want to be. So we are going to rebuild what has been broken and push hard to complete the rigorous screening process for those refugees already in the pipeline for admission.”

Solid words. Words tragically absent over the last four years. A reminder of that noble beacon that promised (by way of Emma Lazarus and her poem The New Colossus”): “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free, the retched refuse of your teeming shore.”

The road forward is a political minefield, with the larger reality of immigration reform still ignored and the worldwide dynamics of climate change, war, rising political violence and crime combining to escalate and accelerate the population of refugees seeking asylum and a better life. In Afghanistan now and in the coming years, Joe Biden has the opportunity to reset the public discourse and solidify American leadership as every nation faces growing displacement. It won’t be easy—there will be tough choices to make—but it couldn’t be more necessary.

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