Opinion by Jim Jones, published in the Washington Post
March 30, 2021 at 2:51 p.m. MDT
Jim Jones, a Vietnam combat veteran, is a former Idaho attorney general (1983-1991) and justice of the Idaho Supreme Court (2005-2017).
As a U.S. soldier during the Vietnam War, I lived and worked with members of the South Vietnamese military. I counted them as friends. Many were Catholics who had moved from North to South Vietnam in the 1950s to escape persecution. They were fiercely anti-communist and pro-American. I gladly trusted them with my life.
It broke my heart when North Vietnam took over South Vietnam in April 1975 — I knew that many of my friends were in mortal danger. The Communist regime sent many of those who had fought against it to brutal “reeducation camps,” where thousands are thought to have died. We’ll never know for certain what the postwar toll was. The U.S. government had a moral obligation to extract as many of its allies as possible, but instead we abandoned them.
A similar tragedy is slowly occurring again with those who helped us in Afghanistan and Iraq, but there is still time to avert the worst of it if America will keep its word. The need is particularly acute in Afghanistan, where peace negotiations appear likely to lead ultimately to a Taliban takeover, risking a storm of bloody reprisals.
In recognition of those who assisted U.S. forces and were endangered as a result, Congress enacted a special immigrant visa (SIV) program for Iraqis in 2008 and another for Afghans in 2009. Specified numbers of slots for each nationality are set for immigration to the United States each year, separate from regular annual refugee limits.
The program for both nationalities has shamefully languished in recent years. The average wait time for processing an application is now three years. That is a deadly problem for those whose lives are in danger every day. People who placed themselves and their families in jeopardy, relying on our protection, are dying in red tape.
As The Post reported in December, “The U.S. government does not track casualties among applicants, but volunteer groups working to help applicants estimate that at least 1,000 linguists have been killed while waiting for visas to leave Afghanistan and Iraq.”
The backlog of applicants from both countries is massive: 17,000 Afghan SIV applicants, with almost 50,000 immediate family members, and about 100,000 Iraqi SIVs and families. That is a stain on this country’s honor.
As it happens, the state where I live, Idaho, has a robust refugee-settlement program, but it could definitely be expanded as part of a larger national effort to make good on the country’s SIV promises.
The Idaho Office for Refugees, where I formerly served on the board, tells me that over the past decade, 6,683 refugees were settled in Idaho, including 995 Iraqis and 432 Afghans. But only 136 of those two nationalities are SIV admittees and their family members. The past four years have seen a dramatic decrease in all refugee admissions. A total of 1,115 refugees came to Idaho in fiscal 2016, including 114 Iraqis and 72 Afghans. In fiscal 2020, the total fell to 208 admittees, with nine Iraqis and 16 Afghans — reflecting the withering of the SIV program nationally.
That means America is depriving itself of people like Marwan Sweedan, a medical doctor I know in Boise, Idaho. Marwan and his family stepped forward to help coalition forces in Iraq, which meant that their names went on a paramilitary force’s kill list. His father was kidnapped and killed in 2006. Marwan and his mother and brothers escaped to Jordan and then came to the United States as refugees, thanks to a precursor of the SIV program, in 2008.
Marwan then joined the U.S. Army and served three years, training combat medics and teaching soldiers about Iraqi culture. He settled in Boise where he has worked in the local medical community and assisted in the city’s refugee resettlement program.
I think too of Abdul Majidy, an Afghan IT expert who partnered with U.S. and local medical personnel for nine years during the conflict in his homeland. He, his wife and two children came to the United States on SIV visas in 2013, after he received death threats for helping Americans. He is now a U.S. citizen, with four children attending Boise schools.
Those who stepped up to assist the coalition efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq are doers and risk-takers — just the kind of folks who have built American society from the very beginning.
The threat to Iraqis who helped the United States from Islamic State terrorists and others has not ebbed, while the danger for Afghans grows worse by the day. If Afghanistan falls to the Taliban, the flow of refugees, including thousands who helped U.S. forces, will increase to a torrent. We must be prepared to provide them sanctuary. The United States should do everything in its power to avoid repeating the disgrace of its exit from Vietnam.