Resettling Afghan refugees is America at its finest

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The horrifying images from Afghanistan have Americans thinking about what we can do for the Afghans whose fearful faces fill our screens. We react viscerally to desperate people fleeing their homes and clinging to airplanes. We also have an obligation to those who worked with our troops and diplomats, translated for journalists, volunteered to work with NGOs, and fought alongside the United States and its allies over the past two decades.  

There will be refugees who flee what is coming, adding to the unprecedented population of refugees and displaced people across the globe. President Biden reminded us that Operation Allies Refuge — a U.S. military operation to airlift at-risk Afghan civilians, translators and others — has already relocated 2,000 Afghans to the United States. Many Americans, shocked by what they are witnessing, hope many more will follow. Afghan refugees will need our support as they start new lives here. That’s what America does when we are at our very best.

Presidential leadership matters in times of crisis and various concrete actions could turn tragedy into compassion. The president could commit the United States to welcome up to 200,000 Afghan refugees; create a special humanitarian parole category for Afghan women leaders, journalists and others; and cut the red tape to expedite the refugee resettlement process. He could follow through on his commitment to create a private sponsorship program so that Afghan and other refugees get the support they need. He could call for a clearinghouse where Americans could easily make donations to support Afghan refugees, sponsor a refugee in their community, and unleash philanthropy and the business sector to help. He could appoint a national refugee coordinator to respond to this crisis now and lay a foundation for more effective integration of refugees from other countries.

In this moment, we have a chance to remember the other times when we have resettled people in crisis — after World War II, after Vietnam, and during the years of the Cold War. We never regretted the moments that Americans welcomed total strangers in need to become our neighbors and fellow Americans.  

The moments we regret are when our generosity failed us — when we refused entrance to 900 Jewish refugees on the SS St. Louis in 1939, sending them back to uncertain fates in Europe at the dawn of World War II, and more recently when we tore children from the arms of their parents at our southern border. 

Now is an important moment to remember we can and should lead by example, not only in resettling those fleeing Afghanistan but also in our treatment of those seeking asylum at our borders, and those languishing in refugee camps in troubled regions. Just as we feel a personal connection to the Afghans who were our partners, we are connected in other ways to those displaced by the violence of a drug trade that aims its wares at the U.S. market, and to those whose livelihoods disappear because of the impact of a climate that is changing in response to our way of living.   

Some refugees from these and other tragedies live in our hemisphere and have made their way north. We cannot suggest that coming to the United States is the answer for all of them, but surely we can do a better job of protecting those who merit it under our laws even as we do the hard work of building resilience and opportunity in partnership with the countries they flee.   

The Biden administration has taken up this work — sometimes haltingly, and always in the harsh glare of critics. We must scrutinize the administration’s attempts to apply the law with humanity while also addressing the reasons that people migrate in the first place.  

There is cause to criticize the administration’s actions in Afghanistan that are fueling a larger humanitarian crisis. But what if, in addition to scrutinizing our government’s work, Americans mobilized to help support Afghan refugees today and learned about the challenges they and other refugees and asylum seekers face? What if we supported the NGOs struggling to provide food and shelter at the border? What if we rolled up our sleeves to help the families of migrant children as they adjust to being reunited and start the school year? What if we worked with the faith-based groups who sponsor refugees and help them get on their feet in their new country?

It is our hope that these steps can start with the Afghans to whom we owe so much, but that we won’t stop there. We hope this moment will remind us that there is joy in providing welcome, that we are enriched so much more than we give, and these instincts are what define us as Americans at our best.

Cecilia Muñoz is senior adviser to New America and former director of the White House Domestic Policy Council under President Obama. John Bridgeland is CEO of the COVID Collaborative and former director of the White House Domestic Policy Council under President Bush. They are co-leading the development of an initiative to support the resettlement of refugees from Afghanistan and around the world.

Tags Afghan refugees Barack Obama Forced migration Joe Biden Operation Allies Refuge refugees U.S. southern border

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