WASHINGTON (RNS) — In early August, as Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, Krish O’Mara Vignarajah reported to Fort Lee, an Army post in Virginia, to welcome and offer legal assistance to Afghans who aided the U.S. during its decades in the country. The people she met — Afghans with Special Immigrant Visas, or SIVs, but little else — were racked with mixed emotions after being evacuated.
They expressed relief, gratitude and a combination of “fear for those left behind and the sadness of leaving the only home they’ve ever known,” said Vignarajah, president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.
Then, a week ago, flights into Fort Lee abruptly stopped.
Vignarajah, along with the heads of other agencies that make up the backbone of the U.S. refugee resettlement apparatus, pivoted to a role they undertook many times under the Trump administration, which reduced the number of refugees to a historic low: arguing for more vulnerable foreign nationals to be processed and delivered safely to U.S. shores.
This time, however, the crisis was particularly urgent.
In a blitz of traditional and social media advocacy, Vignarajah and a slate of other leaders — Mark Hetfield of the Jewish agency HIAS as well as representatives of World Relief, Church World Service and the Episcopal Church — joined other religious and secular refugee aid organizations in calling for President Joe Biden to do more to aid vulnerable Afghans.
“We can’t tie a life-or-death humanitarian evacuation to an arbitrary timeline,” Vignarajah tweeted on Thursday. “Our government made a commitment and we can’t give up until the job is done. If political will matches military might, we can still pull off the boldest evacuation in modern history.”
They also repeatedly expressed frustration with assertions by the White House that SIVs and vulnerable Afghans weren’t evacuated earlier because some didn’t want to leave and challenged the government’s initial Aug. 31 departure deadline.
According to survey data provided to RNS by Data for Progress, a majority of Christians (54%) believe Biden should speed up the process of giving American allies in Afghanistan immigrant visas to come to the U.S.
Those who considered themselves evangelical or born again Christians were slightly less likely to say the same (48%). (The survey was not large enough to include other faith groups or combinations of religion and race.)
Criticism of the administration mounted as the U.S. government scrambled to retain control of the Hamid Karzai International Airport. Reports abound of vulnerable Afghans and foreign nationals struggling to reach the airport, citing roadblocks by Taliban forces. In at least one instance, tear gas was fired by soldiers into throngs clamoring for entry, although it was unclear which fighting force the soldiers belonged to.