After the Taliban detained and tortured Safi Rauf, a Naval reservist and former linguist with U.S. Special Forces, he realized how dangerous it was for Afghans with ties to the U.S. to live under Taliban rule.
Over the past month, Rauf and other U.S. veterans have been traveling to conservative states to lobby for a bipartisan bill that would make it easier for Afghan evacuees to become legal permanent residents and will help those who are left behind to come to the U.S.
“Nobody understands better than me,” Rauf said, remembering what it was like to be held hostage by the Taliban. “I saw Afghans in prison. I saw people from the military, anybody who had worked with Americans and how they were being tortured.”
He and his brother were helping at-risk Afghans evacuate the country last December when they were both captured. The U.S. government negotiated their release after 105 days of detention and torture. Rauf came to America in 2010 as an Afghan refugee when he was 17, served with the U.S. Special Forces and worked closely with the Afghans on the ground from 2012 to 2016. He is currently in the U.S. Navy Reserves.
Rauf said the Afghan Adjustment Act gives Americans the opportunity to support Afghans who helped U.S. war efforts and ensure that they arrive safely in the states.
“Veterans, when we left all of those allies behind, suffered moral injury,” Rauf said. “Our military told them that if they support our military, we will get back to help them, and they will have a good life here in America, under democracy,”
“And the Afghans who are [already evacuated] here, they are very committed to the American way,” he continued. “They are going to be productive and contributing members of society who join the military, become engineers, doctors, scientists, creators.”
As a quick fix after the surprise fall of Kabul last year and the ensuing chaos, the United States granted 77,000 Afghans who were able to leave the country temporary status known as Humanitarian Parole, which allowed them to stay in the country for up to two years without establishing a clear legal pathway to permanent residence and eventually, citizenship.
Tens of thousands of eligible people who were not lucky enough to fly out of Afghanistan are now waiting for the processing of their Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) ― a program that allows Afghans who worked on behalf of the U.S. government in Afghanistan to resettle in the U.S.
But the program is moving slowly. Since the start of the Biden administration through Sept. 30, 2022, the State Department has issued more than 18,000 SIVs to principal applicants and their eligible family members, a State Department spokesperson told HuffPost. The number is far lower to cater to the backlog that has plagued the program.
As of May 2022, there were 61,888 principal applications in process and an estimated 259,930 additional eligible family members of those principal applicants, for a total of about 322,000 estimated Afghan SIV applicants, the State Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) reported.
The bipartisan Afghan Adjustment Act was introduced in August and its passage can help Afghans in the U.S. to adjust their status and get green cards, and it would also speed up the process and increase eligibility for special immigrant visas for those remaining in Afghanistan.
But some Republicans are against the bill, blaming the Biden administration for a disorganized airlift operation and arguing that Afghan evacuees were not sufficiently vetted. A Defense Department report from February only records on 50 Afghan evacuees indicated “potentially significant security concerns.”
However, the bill includes precise language on new vetting procedures that would need to be met for every applicant, even though Afghans who were evacuated had already been vetted at U.S. bases in the Middle East and Europe before entering the U.S.
In September, Rauf was among the advocates and veteran groups pushing for the passage of the bill through a fire watch outside of Capitol Hill. However, the effort to attach the Afghan Adjustment Act to a stopgap spending bill before Congress left for recess in October was unsuccessful. If the bill is included in the omnibus bill that will be voted on in December, it has a chance of becoming a law this year.
Taking this opportunity, Rauf and his fellow veterans have been making the rounds in red states, where they hope to win over Republican senators and garner more support from the veteran communities and the public. The group has already stopped at Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Utah throughout October, and plans to keep driving south and eastward.
“We have spoken to some of the most conservative Republicans, and they all seem to be supporting us,” Rauf said. “This is very common-sense legislation. The problem is that there wasn’t enough advocacy being done about the information of what this act is about.”
The bill overall however, has not been fully supported by all Republicans since it was introduced, partly because of their anti-immigration stance.
“But this is not immigration,” Rauf said. “These people were brought here by the U.S. military and non-U.S. military planes to the U.S. This is about our allies whose lives are at stake, and they will literally get killed if they were to be sent back to Afghanistan.”
While violence in Afghanistan has decreased since the U.S. completed its withdrawal last summer, reports indicate that the ruling Taliban are still targeting former members of the military and government officials despite a declared amnesty. Women are subject to new stringent rules, and the government has been accused of targeting minorities and imprisoning and torturing journalists. Additionally, the country’s economy is in shambles due in large part to the United States’ decision to freeze its citizens’ assets, in addition to other factors, such as drought.
This story originally appeared on HuffPost