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Senators Urge Biden Administration to Open Pathways to U.S. for Afghan Women Leaders, Others At Risk

Afghan women take part in a gathering at a hall in Kabul on August 2, 2021 against the claimed human rights violations on women by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

A group of 46 senators asked the Biden administration to ramp up efforts to evacuate at-risk Afghans and create a specific humanitarian parole category for female leaders, journalists and others.

A bipartisan group of senators is urging the Biden administration to create a specific humanitarian parole category for certain Afghan women, including leaders, journalists, activists, security forces and others who are at risk in the wake of the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan following the U.S. withdrawal.

Humanitarian parole is used to bring someone who is not otherwise eligible to enter the country, or who does not have a visa, into the U.S. temporarily because of an emergency or urgent humanitarian reason.

"We are gravely concerned about the safety of women leaders, activists, judges, parliamentarians and human rights defenders," a group of 46 senators wrote in a letter Monday to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

[ READ: Chaos, Violence at Kabul Airport as U.S. Tries to Complete Afghanistan Evacuation ]

Three Republican senators – Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma – joined Democratic colleagues in signing the letter.

"We and our staff are receiving regular reports regarding the targeting, threatening, kidnapping, torturing, and assassinations of women for their work defending and promoting democracy, equality, higher education, and human rights. While we welcomed the expansion of the eligibility requirements for Special Immigrant Visas and the creation of the Priority 2 category in the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, we must also protect those women who might fall through the cracks of the U.S. Government's response," the letter reads, referencing existing pathways for Afghans to come to the U.S. in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal.

The Biden administration has been roundly criticized by those across the political spectrum for withdrawing from Afghanistan without a clear plan in place to process and evacuate Afghan allies and those who would be at risk of retaliation from the Taliban, including U.S. interpreters and others who worked with American forces. That includes thousands of Afghans who have applied for what's known as Special Immigrant Visas, or SIVs, who are now stranded in the country. There is, however, some opposition on the right to the U.S. taking in Afghan refugees and visa holders.

President Joe Biden in July announced a plan dubbed Operation Allies Refuge to evacuate Afghan allies from the country who had been waiting in visa backlogs, and Congress also in July voted to increase the number of SIVs available to Afghans needing to flee the country because of the U.S. withdrawal. The U.S. has already accepted about 2,000 Afghan SIV recipients and their families.

The State Department earlier this month also announced the creation of a "Priority 2" designation within its refugee program for certain Afghans who worked with the U.S. but do not qualify for SIVs.

The situation in Afghanistan turned increasingly dire Sunday and Monday after the Taliban took the city of Kabul and the country more quickly than the U.S. anticipated, and desperate Afghans rushed to the nearby airport, where U.S. forces and diplomats were evacuating. It remains the only way out of the country.

The State Department and the Department of Homeland Security have since been scrambling to speed up the processing of visa applications as the Department of Defense works to secure the Kabul airport and ramp up evacuation flights.

The Pentagon also said Monday that it was working to ramp up refugee resettlement, including standing up potential temporary sites at bases in Texas and Wisconsin.

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Biden acknowledged the issue in a speech Monday.

"I know that there are concerns about why we did not begin evacuating Afghans – civilians sooner. Part of the answer is some of the Afghans did not want to leave earlier – still hopeful for their country. And part of it was because the Afghan government and its supporters discouraged us from organizing a mass exodus to avoid triggering, as they said, 'a crisis of confidence,'" Biden said.

Refugee and immigrant advocates and experts quickly pushed back against Biden's assertion that Afghans did not want to leave earlier. Earlier this year, more than 18,000 SIV applicants were in the visa backlog.

Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, president and chief executive officer of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, one of the largest refugee resettlement groups in the U.S., said in a statement Monday that Biden's comments were "inconsistent with our experience working with Afghan allies."

"We have been in touch with countless SIV recipients who have been desperate to leave Afghanistan for months and have not been able to due to a backlog in visa processing, insufficient financial resources and inadequate flight accessibility through international organizations," she said.

The senators in their letter Monday also urged the Biden administration to increase capacity at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to process visa applications and other applications from Afghans, and asked the administration to diligently ramp up evacuation flights for Afghans who qualify and need them.

"Particularly for women who are currently targets – even hunted by Taliban fighters who are going house-to-house with their names – the path to protection and safety under the Priority 2 designation is not accessible," the senators wrote. "While we understand there is little processing capacity at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, for these women to access a third country for processing is almost or completely impossible with all [border] crossings now closed or controlled by the Taliban."


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