One of the most popular quotations describing America is: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” the words of Emma Lazarus in her poem “The New Colossus,” which are inscribed on a plaque at the Statue of Liberty.
These words have recently been revived, as they have from time to time throughout our nation’s history, in the current context of Afghan refugees, particularly those who worked with the U.S. military during our 20-year war there.
Now, as the war has officially ended, and a number of Afghan refugees who served alongside our military are arriving in the U.S., the nation is being confronted with several important questions, including what benefits are available to our allies as they begin their new lives here.
One of those questions is whether Afghan allies, specifically interpreters, should be eligible for VA benefits, such as the GI Bill.
Although at first glance, this may seem like an easy solution to a complex problem, like most questions pertaining to VA policy, the answer itself isn’t so simple.
That doesn’t mean that some sort of benefits shouldn’t be provided, only that we should perform a more thorough inquiry of available benefits before settling on a legislative solution.
First, it’s important to note some important lessons from history.
VA benefits have previously been legislatively provided to foreign allies, most notably Filipino veterans at the conclusion of World War II. However, the solution that was implemented resulted in many bureaucratic headaches for those involved; for both those who’d served and those trying to administer the benefits.
For example, as recently as 2009, when the Filipino Veterans Equity Compensation Fund was passed as part of the economic stimulus plan, providing the required documentation to demonstrate the type of service required to receive benefits proved daunting, as records were not well-kept and many fraudulent documents were presented in attempts to prove eligibility.
Likewise, any current legislation would encounter similar issues regarding documentation. During the recent withdrawal process, many Afghan allies struggled with whether to destroy documents proving that they worked for the U.S. government for fear of revenge killings by the Taliban.
Similarly, with regard to the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) process, which requires applicants to submit significant documentation of their work with U.S. forces, including a recommendation letter from their senior U.S.-citizen supervisor, many eligible Afghans have reported difficulty assembling them, contributing to the backlog.
Second, the GI Bill has come under close scrutiny from lawmakers in recent years for a variety of issues, including criticism that the program in its current form simply isn’t working. According to a report issued in June by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the incomes of veterans using the post-9/11 GI Bill are actually lower than if they’d not gone to college at all.
Moreover, disruptions due to COVID-19, misfiled paperwork, late payments, and issues with predatory recruiting practices at some for-profit schools, have all raised the question of whether expanding the GI Bill’s parameters is a wise decision at this time.
To this end, it is also of note that a number of American veterans have had difficulty navigating the GI Bill’s requirements.
In a survey by the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University, 60 percent of veterans who used the GI Bill complained the complexity of VA programs hampered their attempts to stay in school or graduate, and 56 percent said they had inadequate financial resources to stay in college even with GI Bill help.
Refugees are a particularly vulnerable population, and thus, they may be more susceptible to predatory recruiting practices by schools with poor track records and bureaucratic red tape than their American counterparts.
Despite the current concerns surrounding the GI Bill, the prevailing attitude in the military and veterans’ community is one of unwavering support for our Afghan allies. Perhaps a better legislative strategy for well-meaning members of Congress that want to extend some sort of VA benefits to Afghan allies than the extension of GI Bill benefits would be an extension of VA’s treatment of allied and foreign national beneficiaries during World Wars I and II, codified in Title 38, section 109.
Although VA health care is also not without issue, broadly speaking, health care is arguably a more immediate and tangible need for refugee families than educational assistance. Moreover, just as veterans of Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn conflicts receive up to five years of free health care after discharge from service, perhaps, so too, should our Afghan allies. Although the Refugee Medical Assistance Program provides temporary, eight-month coverage and refugees may be eligible for Medicaid thereafter, Afghan allies specifically may feel more comfortable receiving treatment from VA, which specializes in understanding the trauma that extends from living and working in a war zone.
Specifically, Congress could pass an amendment to section 109 of Title 38 that is updated to the specific situation of our Afghan allies. Notably, the current law states that the government of the requesting nation must have “a reciprocal agreement with VA,” a provision that is impractical given the current Taliban-controlled government of Afghanistan.
Although Afghan allies may encounter the same difficulties when it comes to documenting their service for health care purposes as they would for GI bill benefits, the fact that Medicaid benefits are alternatively available would likely provide a natural offset of those who served alongside U.S. forces in a military setting versus those who did not.
As with any legislative proposal, the devil is in the details. As Sen. Carl Hayden (D-Ariz.) stated during the passage of the 1946 Recission Act, which provided benefits to Filipino veterans:
“As I see it, the best thing the American government can do is to help the Filipino people to help themselves.”
Likewise, the best thing we can do now for our Afghan allies is to help them help themselves, through thoughtful and specifically tailored legislative proposals that will aid them in establishing their new lives here.
Rory E. Riley-Topping is the founder of Riley-Topping Consulting, where she continues to work with various veterans’ organizations. Riley-Topping served as a litigation staff attorney for the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP), where she represented veterans and their survivors before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. She also served as the staff director and counsel for the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs for former Chairman Jeff MillerJefferson (Jeff) Bingham MillerCongress should explore extending certain VA benefits to Afghan allies Don't blame veterans for Afghanistan withdrawal, and don't forget about them VA's decision on transgender veterans is a step in the right direction MORE (R-Fla.). You can find her on Twitter: @RileyTopping.