Let the Afghans In

The time to expand the US refugee system and protect large numbers from death is now.

The rapid Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has stranded several thousand Afghans who aided American forces. Estimates vary, but there are at least 80,000 or so Afghans who would be eligible for the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program for Afghan translators, allies, and their family members who aided US forces in Afghanistan.

About 76,000 Afghans have entered the United States using the SIV while an additional 20,841 have entered through the normal US refugee program since 9/11. The US government needs to make sure they make it to US soil, a military base abroad, or a safe third country before it’s too late. Currently the Pentagon is allowing three US bases to house Afghan refugees while their applications go through the processing system, but the three bases will only allow up to 22,000 Afghans to enter — and that capacity will only be available in about 3-4 weeks, which will be too late for many Afghans.

These Afghans and their families helped American forces with the implicit guarantee that we’d help them if we had to. Now that the Taliban has taken over Afghanistan, it’s almost too late to help them. Even worse, the total number of people fleeing Afghanistan in the coming months and years could be gigantic, putting even more pressure on US and other refugee resettlement programs worldwide.

EXACTLY HOW MANY REFUGEES ARE WE TALKING ABOUT? 

From 2000 to 2001, on the eve of the US invasion after 9/11, about 222,436 Afghans became refugees on net. That number was equal to about 1% of Afghanistan’s total population in that year. After almost 20 years of American occupation, the Afghan population has roughly doubled to 40 million (estimates are clustered between 37 million and about 39.5 million). If the same percentage of the population leaves Afghanistan as refugees in 2021-2022 as in 2000-2001, there will be approximately 410,000 refugees. In even the best case scenario, only a small percentage of that large number will reach the United States, but we need to make sure that at least those who aided US forces are among them.

President Gerald Ford used his legal power to grant parole to South Vietnamese fleeing in Vietnam in 1975. President Biden should use that power now to fly Afghans to Guam, process them, and then admit them to the US.

It’s important to keep in mind that the approximate of 410,000 refugees is a conservative estimate. By the time 2001 came around, Afghanistan had been in conflict for more than 20 years and millions had already left. Many more could leave now after decades of US occupation and rapid population growth. It would not be out of the realm of possibility for 2-5% of Afghanistan’s population to flee in the next few years, equal to about 800,000-2 million people. Even though most will go to neighboring countries like Pakistan and Iran, some will try to get to Europe and the United States. As hard as it is to bureaucratically resettle refugees currently, it would be far more difficult if their numbers increased dramatically. In other words, it’s better to welcome and resettle Afghan refugees now than later.

THE TERRORISM THREAT IS OVERBLOWN

Terrorism is one concern related to accepting people fleeing Afghanistan as it is a country that has been ravanged by internal conflict and foreign invasion for decades. Unfortunately decades of war has also seen the spread of an ideology that inspires terrorism, at least inside of Afghanistan’s own borders. Thus, it’s not crazy for American policymakers to be worried about the potential for terrorists to enter in refugee flows. The US government is flying them to several military bases for processing and to weed out suspected national security threats, but the risk from terrorism is still manageable.

From 1975-2017, zero people were murdered by Afghans in terror attacks on US soil. During that time, three Afghan-born terrorists committed attacks or attempted attacks on US soil. They were Najibullah Zazi, Zarein Ahmedzay, and Ahmad Khan Rahimi. They murdered zero people and injured about 30. Also from 1975-2017, the annual chance of being murdered by an Afghan terrorist in an attack on US soil was zero and the chance of being injured was about one in 398,828,510 per year.

The terrorism risk could change if the number of Afghans admitted increases, but they would have to increase dramatically to matter. The risk of Afghan terrorism, therefore, is very small. However, Omar Mateen, son of an Afghan immigrant, did commit the second deadliest mass shooting in US history at the Pulse nightclub in Florida in 2016 where he murdered 49 people and injured 53 in an Islamist-inspired terror attack. As horrific as that attack was, it is the only one I’m aware of committed by the children of Afghan immigrants. The long-term risk, therefore, is above zero, but not high enough to sentence Afghans to certain death if they helped American forces.

WHAT ABOUT CRIME?

Crime that could be committed by Afghan refugees also worries people. To be clear, crime committed by immigrants no matter where they are from worries Americans despite evidence that they are much less crime prone than native-born Americans. But Afghans may be of particular concern after reports, such as this from a National Interest piece published in 2017 that claims that Afghan refugees are a tremendous source of crime in Europe. The author of that piece worked with refugees and cited many anecdotes about Afghan refugee crime, but she did not provide any data. While her experiences are interesting and valuable, they are not evidence of a higher Afghan crime rate. To be clear, Afghan refugees may have a higher crime rate in Europe but it’s difficult to check as European crime data are abysmal, but it is not true in the United States.

According to data that Michelangelo Landgrave and I gathered for a recent paper on immigrant criminality, Afghan immigrants aged 18-54 in the United States were incarcerated at a rate of 127 per 100,000 Afghan immigrants in 2017. By comparison, native-born Americans in the same age range were incarcerated at a rate of 1,477 per 100,000 native-born Americans. In other words, native-born Americans were about 11.6 times as likely to be incarcerated as Afghan immigrants. German immigrants, a group famously known for its obedience to US law, has an incarceration rate about 3.5 times higher than Afghan immigrants. Afghans don’t pose much of a serious criminal threat in the United States.

EXPANDING THE US REFUGEE SYSTEM

The US refugee system selects humanitarian immigrants abroad who have been vetted by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The process for a refugee, from selection to admission to the United States, takes years. It’s a slow and bureaucratic process that is more controlled by the US government than any other aspect of the immigration system. It cannot help Afghans in real time but it can be modified to speed of processing for Afghans who flee to neighboring countries in the coming years.

The United States should make an open-ended commitment to evacuate and resettle Afghans in the United States, cognizant of legitimate security concerns. The top priority is to resettle those who helped American forces, but other Afghans who fear the Taliban’s tyranny should also have a chance. The major arguments against such resettlement are unconvincing.

Furthermore, we are beyond the point where more visas will affect more than a tiny number of people who are in serious danger today. President Joe Biden has the legal power to grant parole, a legal term for allowing admittance to the United States, for any foreigner he wants. This is the power that President Gerald Ford used to fly South Vietnamese to the United States in 1975. President Biden should use it now to fly Afghans to Guam, process them, and then admit those who are eligible to enter the United States.

If ever there were a situation where the refugee system should be expanded rapidly and where the president should use his parole authority to account for larger numbers of people facing death or tyranny, this is it.

Alex Nowrasteh is the director of immigration studies and the Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute.