Commentary: We cannot leave our Afghan allies to die

Next month, the world will mark the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).  With war raging in the Middle East and Ukraine, autocrats empowered, and domestic extremism on the rise, the goals articulated in that document remain aspirations. But even as the rights of too many remain unsecured, there is a simple step the United States could take that would protect vulnerable people and demonstrate the country’s continued commitment to the ideals proclaimed in the UDHR: we can keep our promise to the Afghans who served alongside American forces and supported our peacekeeping mission.

Just half a block south of the wall in Tijuana that separates the United States from Mexico, some of our allies have been left behind. Last month, I had the opportunity to meet 55 Afghans who are currently navigating the byzantine American immigration system and waiting for America to honor our promise of permanent safety.

These families, some with young children barely old enough to walk, made the arduous journey from Afghanistan after the fall of their elected government. Many either fought alongside American forces during our 20-year war against the Taliban or are ethnic or religious minorities fleeing persecution from them.

Among those sheltered is a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applicant who devoted nearly a decade to working alongside American forces. Facing reprisals from the Taliban after the U.S. withdrawal, he made the difficult decision to flee with his young family. Their journey first took them to Iran. They then flew to Brazil, where they initially felt welcome due to the availability of humanitarian visas. However, while there, the family faced discrimination and criminal attacks. Fearing for their safety, they embarked on a perilous journey from Brazil to Tijuana, walking through Colombia and the Darien Gap, a 60-mile stretch of jungle between Colombia and Panama and one of the most dangerous places on earth.

In this 2021 file photo, a U.S. soldier plays catch with an Afghan refugee child in the village where Afghans were living temporarily at the Ft. McCoy U.S. Army base in Ft. McCoy, Wis. (Credit: Barbara Davidson/Pool photo via AP)
In this 2021 file photo, a U.S. soldier plays catch with an Afghan refugee child in the village where Afghans were living temporarily at the Ft. McCoy U.S. Army base in Ft. McCoy, Wis. (Credit: Barbara Davidson/Pool photo via AP)

The family marched the spine of Central America to reach the United States, yet they remain a wall away from their destination. Conditions in the shelter are difficult.  Dozens of families share a few rooms: a communal dining room, an even smaller living space where they roll out mats each night to sleep, and a small balcony to dry clothes.

Since 2010, 17,000 Afghan refugees and those with special immigrant visas have arrived in Texas, 3,800 of them since the fall of Kabul. They have encountered a complex immigration system still recovering from significant funding cuts. There is a better, more systematic way to help them.

The bipartisan Afghan Adjustment Act (AAA) would provide pathways to safety. The bill would establish an interagency task force to facilitate the relocation of Afghans, reducing the need for them to take the dangerous journey made by the aforementioned visa applicant Mr. Ali and his family. For Afghans already in the United States due to the 2021 evacuation, the AAA offers the opportunity to apply for legal permanent residency after undergoing further background checks.

Introduced in both the House and Senate, the AAA awaits a vote. The bill enjoys strong support from the vast majority of Americans; however, it remains delayed by procedural tactics. Leaders like Senator John Cornyn must take action and pass this life-saving legislation.

Our laws and treaty obligations demand immigration policies that reflect our values. We cannot leave our Afghan allies to die at the hands of the Taliban, coyotes, or paramilitaries.

Passing the AAA would show that our nation meets its commitments while demonstrating our shared values to each other, to Afghans, and to the world. As Human Rights Day approaches, supporting and passing the AAA would be a testament to our commitment to those who served alongside us in Afghanistan and the centrality of human rights.

Purdy is Human Rights First's Veterans for American Ideals and Outreach Director. He is an Army National Guard veteran deployed to Iraq and Thailand during his service.

This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Commentary: We cannot leave our Afghan allies to die