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The United States Needs an Afghan Refugee Resettlement Act

Legislation passed in the wake of the Vietnam War could provide a blueprint for today’s policymakers.

By , an adjunct professor at American University.
Afghans at a passport office
Afghans wait in long lines at the passport office in Kabul on Aug. 14. Paula Bronstein /Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

The United States faces a fundamental decision on how to respond to the rapidly escalating refugee crisis in Afghanistan. U.S. President Joe Biden and Congress must act fast to protect those at risk of persecution by the Taliban as they take control, including individuals who assisted the U.S. government, women, religious and ethnic minorities, human rights activists, journalists, and members of the LGBT community.

There is precedent for how the government can respond: the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act, passed in 1975 in response to the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War. The legislation permitted individuals from South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia to come to the United States. The act was a monumental shift from previous U.S. policy toward refugees, but significant issues hindered its execution that could inform new policies in the wake of the fall of Kabul.

The Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act was championed by then-U.S. President Gerald Ford and its sponsor, then-Rep. Peter Rodino, but it faced some opposition in Congress. Then-Sen. Robert Byrd said he intended to cut the refugee assistance budget due to lack of political support and added that any admission of refugees should exclude “undesirables.” Biden, then a senator, also had significant reservations about the act and associated legislation. “I will vote for any amount for getting the Americans out. I don’t want it mixed with getting the Vietnamese out,” he said. Biden ultimately supported the act, but his initial opposition influenced the legislative outcome.

The United States faces a fundamental decision on how to respond to the rapidly escalating refugee crisis in Afghanistan. U.S. President Joe Biden and Congress must act fast to protect those at risk of persecution by the Taliban as they take control, including individuals who assisted the U.S. government, women, religious and ethnic minorities, human rights activists, journalists, and members of the LGBT community.

There is precedent for how the government can respond: the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act, passed in 1975 in response to the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War. The legislation permitted individuals from South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia to come to the United States. The act was a monumental shift from previous U.S. policy toward refugees, but significant issues hindered its execution that could inform new policies in the wake of the fall of Kabul.

The Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act was championed by then-U.S. President Gerald Ford and its sponsor, then-Rep. Peter Rodino, but it faced some opposition in Congress. Then-Sen. Robert Byrd said he intended to cut the refugee assistance budget due to lack of political support and added that any admission of refugees should exclude “undesirables.” Biden, then a senator, also had significant reservations about the act and associated legislation. “I will vote for any amount for getting the Americans out. I don’t want it mixed with getting the Vietnamese out,” he said. Biden ultimately supported the act, but his initial opposition influenced the legislative outcome.

The bill signed by Ford initially provided $405 million for the Department of State and the Department of Health to resettle Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees, and it was quickly amended to include refugees from Laos. Over 130,000 people were ultimately granted asylum in the United States.

Today, legislative action regarding Afghan refugees has overwhelming bipartisan support.

Today, legislative action regarding Afghan refugees has overwhelming bipartisan support. In July, the House of Representatives passed the ALLIES Act, which would increase the number of special immigrant visas (SIVs) to evacuate Afghans who provided services to the coalition, by a vote of 407-16. However, the SIV program has faced criticism for processing delays, producing a backlog of over 18,000 applications. The United States also expanded refugee admission by setting up the Priority 2 program, which gives individuals who do not qualify for SIVs an alternate route for refugee status.

Both of these programs have problems, namely the significant delays in issuing visas. The estimated processing time for an SIV is two to three years, while the estimated processing time in the Priority 2 program is 12 to 14 months. Each program requires that refugees make their own way out of Afghanistan while their application is processed, but the fall of Kabul has made that even more difficult. Neighboring Iran and Pakistan have increased security at their borders, potentially leaving Afghan refugees to turn to smugglers as they await the results of their asylee applications.

As U.S. policymakers grapple with the essential migration of Afghan refugees, the 1975 act provides many essential lessons. First, the legislation was deeply flawed in its criteria for admission and handling of asylee cases, leading to significant waiting times. To migrate to the United States, an individual needed to prove close familial ties to the country, prior employment or association with the U.S. government, or broadly defined humanitarian reasons. As a result, refugees traveling by land spent at least a year and sometimes more in camps awaiting asylum, according to a 1979 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report. Those traveling by boat were often moved between several countries while they awaited the results of their application.

Furthermore, the GAO report found that inadequate federal coordination resulted in fluctuating staff levels, lack of expertise, lack of oversight, and little coordination between incoming refugees and the state and local governments where they were ultimately resettled. Critically, in the absence of a comprehensive national resettlement policy, dedicated individuals in the public and private sector were often responsible for meeting refugee needs, according to the report. A coordinated federal policy would ensure that refugee resettlement is the product of a consistent national effort, not one of fortunate circumstances.

The United States must take these lessons into account and formulate a comprehensive strategy to address its ongoing failures in Afghan refugee policy. The 1975 act required targeted funding, with the federal government designating resources toward the appropriate state and municipal governments. Currently, the government has not targeted funding for the people processing the special visa applications, even as it is in desperate need of staff to expedite the process and ensure there are no bureaucratic hurdles. When the applications are approved, the federal government needs to step in to provide the resources to assist with refugee resettlement.

The U.S. government should revamp the migration program for refugees and quickly devise a plan to provide immediate humanitarian parole to individuals who are presently at risk from the Taliban regime—as some lawmakers have already proposed. It must increase staffing levels at the Department of State and Department of Homeland Security to clear existing backlogs. Through targeted funding, lawmakers should ensure that migrants have the proper tools to resettle in the United States, such as English language training, employment, and assistance with cultural integration.

Furthermore, the Biden administration should step in and expand SIV eligibility to include Afghans who worked with nongovernmental organizations focused on politically sensitive issues such as democratization and women’s rights. Many of these programs received funding from government agencies such as the U.S. Agency for International Development, but grantees currently do not qualify for the SIV program. The Biden administration can fix this today. Transportation to a safe haven for individuals who could qualify for a refugee visa should be undertaken in tandem via an executive order under the Immigration and Nationality Act.

These measures must be carried as expeditiously as possible. Failure to do so will put lives in danger of execution by the Taliban. The result would be a blemish on the humanitarian record of the United States—one that members of the Biden administration and the 117th Congress will reckon with for the rest of history.

Anthony Musa is an adjunct professor at American University and a sanctions investigator at the U.S. Treasury. He is also the chair of Pride in Federal Service for LGBTQ+ federal employees and vice president of Capital Pride Alliance in Washington. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author alone and do not reflect the official policy or position of any agency or the U.S. government.

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