Part of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion blog post series. The image above, titled “Desperate Journey” is used with permission of the artist, Hanaa Al-Wardi (http:/hagallery.com)
“History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake” —James Joyce
“and where they make a wasteland, they call it peace” —Tacitus
As I looked at the photo of the last American soldier boarding the plane to leave Afghanistan, thus ending the United States’ long occupation of that country, nothing could free me from the sadness of the lives lost, the hopes shattered and the uncertain future that Afghans are forced to face. And nothing I saw in the news or editorials gave me hope that American politicians have gained wisdom, compassion and insight to make sure a crisis such as this, a propensity to start wars and occupation with unrealistic objectives, can be prevented in the future. It is the curse of human history and human nature that we rarely learn from the past, except in perfecting our cruelty to each other and learning to move thoughtlessly over the bones of the dead.
And so, after twenty years, the United States and its allies have finally left Afghanistan. This is not the space to discuss the legitimacy of the war nor the planning of the final withdrawal. Like the Vietnam war, these questions and the span of time it encompasses will haunt our children and later generations. Such are the ultimate fruits of war. They are the collective trauma of our futures.
But now there is a more immediate question; what do we do now? What do we do with the Afghan refugees who are attempting to flee Afghanistan and who the United States were committed to helping? There are currently thousands of Afghan refugees sitting and waiting in American military bases in Qatar, Bahrain, and Germany, while others wait in third countries such as Albania, Rwanda, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. And this doesn’t include the countless individuals in Afghanistan still trying desperately to leave the country.
Ultimately, our responsibility to Afghans is a moral question. While we can apply the standards of international law, review our policy on admitting refugees and determine whether the United States should increase the annual refugee cap, the foremost question is moral. And our morals should serve as the grounding for our legislation. Our laws should be subservient to what we ought to do and not act as a wall that prevents us from acting humanely.
The United States took the moral approach when reckoning with the aftermath of the Vietnam War and an impeding refugee crisis. At the end of the Vietnam War, President Gerald Ford said the United States had a “profound moral obligation” to those Vietnamese left in danger after the American troop withdrawal. By framing the American troops withdrawal in moral terms, it brought to the forefront the obligations and the commitments that Americans had to make to people of other nations impacted by an American-led war.
Similarly, in today’s situation, we should recognize that we share a common humanity with Afghans who are fleeing their country. We share the same hopes and fears, the same desire to live in a peaceful place, to pursue opportunities for ourselves and our children. Let us not lose sight of the fact that our common humanity should guide us on how we should act.
Thus, the United States can show that it has learned the lessons of the Vietnam War by accepting Afghan refugees quickly and without placing unnecessary impediments on their entry into the U.S. Or to put it in philosophical terms, to paraphrase the philosopher Immanuel Kant, the U.S. has a categorical imperative to treat humanity and in particular, Afghan refugees, always as an end in themselves and never only as a means to an end.
Recently, AILA and its partners sent a urging the Biden administration to ensure at-risk Afghans do not languish in legal limbo abroad. Their recommendations are great examples of how the United States can exercise their moral imperative. All evacuated Afghans and all Afghans in the process of fleeing to the United States should be paroled into the United States by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). While parole is not a permanent status, it allows Afghans the possibility of entering the United States on a humanitarian basis. Additionally, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) should commit to the creation of a designated humanitarian parole program to guide and expedite the review of parole petitions for additional at-risk Afghans.
There is precedence for using humanitarian parole as a mechanism to bring refugees into the United States. As Amanda Demmer, author of the book After Saigon’s Fall: Refugees and US-Vietnamese Relations, 1976-2000, noted in a recent interview, in 1970,
The United States did not have a process for regular, annual refugee admissions in significant numbers. The parole authority, which derived from a provision in the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act, was the only means to admit refugees beyond the paltry 10,200 the act allotted. Throughout the Cold War, U.S. presidents used parole to admit large groups fleeing communism, who entered the country as parolees and had their legal statuses adjusted thereafter. Although ubiquitously called “refugees,” the 130,000 South Vietnamese who evacuated alongside American personnel in April 1975 were parolees.
Thus, if history is our guide, then it strongly suggests that the United States has the capability to resettle large groups of people from Afghanistan in a similar fashion to what was done in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
There is no court ruling, no arcane legislation, no legal barrier that prevents us from upholding our moral imperative. All it requires is the will of activists, legislators and the people to act quickly to prevent needless suffering. If we are going to learn the lessons of the past and commit to uphold our moral obligations, then the time is now.