Can the U.S. Meet the Humanitarian Challenges of Its Own Making?

With humanitarian crises in Afghanistan, Haiti and at the border, the U.S. must reassess what kind of lasting policy changes would prepare us to protect refugees and other vulnerable people in need around the world.

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 A group of migrants reaching Mexico in November 2018. (Rafael Rodriguez / IOM)

Heavy rains have fallen over Washington D.C. this past week, remnants of the hurricanes and tropical storms of the season.

But a different kind of heaviness—the shock of lost lives and dreams caused by the fall of Afghanistan, the earthquake in Haiti and continued suppression of asylum seekers at the U.S. Mexico border—also hangs over the city, as policymakers attempt to grapple with a new round of humanitarian crises. In each case, directly or indirectly, the U.S. has contributed to these events, and therefore must do more to immediately help those in need. 

We must also take this moment, however, to assess what kind of lasting policy changes would prepare us to truly become the leader once again in protecting refugees and other vulnerable people in need around the world.

A recap of the immediate needs for each of these distinct and desperate situations is in order.

Afghanistan

Long before the decision to withdraw all U.S. troops, refugee advocates have been raising the alarm about extraordinary delays in processing special immigrant visa applications for Afghani citizens who worked for the U.S. as translators and in other support positions. More than 18,000 applications—representing about 70,000 individuals and their families—were pending at the time of the fall of Kabul. 

While the Biden administration has taken steps to expedite the safe passage of these individuals, it clearly thought there would be more time. Instead, the Department of Defense is being tapped to move as many people as possible, but the logistics and the politics are daunting. If the Taliban seizes control of the airport, or if the U.S. shuts down operations as planned, tens of thousands of people will be trapped. 

These concerns apply not only to U.S. allies with pending applications, but for many more who worked indirectly with the United States. And as Ms. has documented repeatedly, all Afghan women, as well as the LGBTQ community, risk persecution under Taliban rule leading a broad coalition of women leaders to demand that the Biden administration protect Afghan women.

Advocates, including groups like Afghans for a Better Tomorrow, are pressing the administration to redouble its efforts to safely resettle not only special immigrant visa applicants, but other Afghan refugees; to negotiate with the Taliban for safe passage of those who wish to leave the country; and for guaranteed protections for women and other at risk groups who choose or have no option but to remain in Afghanistan. 

Congress must provide the funds to make a mass rescue operation a reality, including emergency resources to expand the government’s ability to quickly process people for resettlement. Individual donations are needed as well.

Haiti

Despite the desperate political situation, crumbling infrastructure, and dire poverty of Haiti—all of which has contributed to repression and persecution—the United States has frequently been unwilling to recognize Haitian immigrants as refugees or people in need of protection. 

It was a tremendous victory for Haitian advocates when the Biden administration announced in May 2021 that Haitians residing in the United States would receive temporary protected status (TPS), an interim form of protection from removal; the assassination of Haiti’s president led to an extension of eligibility to cover Haitians living in the U.S. as of July 29, 2021. But Haitians continue to be blocked from entry at the U.S. border, and hundreds of people, including small children, have been deported back to Haiti since that time. Even after the August 14 earthquake, the U.S. continued deportation flights. 

Advocates are calling for an extension of TPS to cover those in the U.S. at the time of the earthquake, an end to all deportations and emergency funding to support Haitian recovery efforts. Direct donations are desperately needed as well.

Asylum Seekers

Haitian deportations are frequently the direct result of the Biden administration’s misguided decision to continue Trump-era policies that permit DHS to expel asylum seekers under COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.

These restrictions also impede the ability of Central Americans and others fleeing persecution from seeking asylum in the United States. Despite some positive moves by the administration to reverse Trump policies limiting asylum eligibility, especially for women facing domestic violence, and ending the remain in Mexico policy that forced asylum seekers to wait in Mexico in dangerous and unsanitary conditions, progress is slow and uneven. 

A federal judge recently ruled that the Biden administration could not end the remain in Mexico program without a full review of its impact; while the administration immediately appealed this decision, it is a clear indication that anti-immigrant and anti-asylum agitators will not make it easy to improve the asylum system. 

Right now, advocates are particularly focused on repealing Title 42 COVID provisions, ensuring access to asylum for children and other asylum seekers, and holding the administration accountable for promises to improve and expand asylum processing. Despite those promises, a proposed regulation on expedited removal of asylum seekers continues to limit the right to a full and fair review of asylum claims.

What’s Next?

The immediate need in each of these categories is great, but these crises represent a much more fundamental breakdown of U.S. humanitarian responses. In short, U.S. law is simply inadequate to quickly and fairly provide the level of protection to refugees and other vulnerable groups that are needed to respond to the crises that arise in this era. If the U.S. is unprepared to handle a rescue mission in Afghanistan, one that many had predicted would be needed, the consequences of a natural disaster for one of our nearest neighbors or the continued migration of Central Americans seeking protection from violence, corruption and economic despair, then we can never be the leader in humanitarian protection that we aspire to be.


U.S. law is simply inadequate to quickly and fairly provide the level of protection to refugees and other vulnerable groups that are needed to respond to the crises that arise in this era.


The solutions require a far deeper dive than can be explored here, but it is clear that the answers involve an evolved immigration scheme that has greater flexibility, more generosity, and an ability to expand or contract in reaction to world events. There must be more measures that allow for temporary and permanent protection within the country, more deliberate and sustained efforts to promote good government and economic opportunity internationally and a commitment to address the regional ebb and flow of migration to the U.S., particularly in light of dire predictions that climate change migration is likely to radically alter the dynamic of borders in the years to come.

In the meantime, raise your voices and open your purses to protect those in danger. American generosity so often eclipses what our lawmakers are capable of producing, but we must translate our good intentions into lasting policy changes or risk even greater storms in the years to come.

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About

Mary Giovagnoli is the former executive director of Refugee Council USA.  She served as deputy assistant secretary for immigration policy in the Department of Homeland Security from January 2016 to January 2018.