What is a supply chain? A supply chain is a connected system of organizations, activities, information, and resources designed to source, produce, or move something from origin to destination. It may be linear, moving from step to step, or it may be echeloned, with coordinated processes synchronized across nodes.
Supply chain practitioners migrate quickly to thinking about moving goods and services across a network, yet there is nothing in the definition restricting our thinking to goods and services. Many supply chains move people, not goods and services. Think airline networks. Think bus lines. Think education systems. Think immigration.
Think refugee evacuations.
In 1975, after the government of South Vietnam collapsed, South Vietnamese citizens suffered brutal oppression at the hands of the conqueror, North Vietnam. Many abandoned their homes and sought asylum and refugee status in the United States.
Airlifts were organized to bring Vietnamese refugees and asylum-seekers to the U.S. Close to 120,000 were rescued and relocated following the war. We built a supply chain for people, evacuating at-risk citizens to the United States.
President Gerald Ford said to “ignore the refugees in their hour of need would be to repudiate the values we cherish as a nation of immigrants, and I was not about to let Congress do that.”
The history of Vietnam, while tragic, also underscores a thread that makes us proud to be American. We did not abandon our partners. We built a network and brought them out. We offered safe haven. We gave them a path to legal residence and a systematic protocol leading toward citizenship.
Far from our moral obligation
When the government of Afghanistan collapsed and the Taliban occupied Kabul, an exodus ensued like the end game in Vietnam. Thousands of Afghans fled the country. Many of these refugees exited the country through Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport on U.S. sanctioned flights. Many came to the U.S. Some went to other countries. Others remain in limbo, like the almost 2,000 of Afghan evacuees housed at the Emirates Humanitarian City refugee camp in Abu Dhabi.
Using Vietnam as a benchmark, we are not treating the Afghan refugees well. There is no functioning, clear system in place to help them transition toward legal residence and then citizenship. We have handed our partners what is a broken supply chain. They need help, and their time may be running out.
Thousands of Afghans arrived in the U.S. about a year ago under a “humanitarian parole,” which allows them to live and work in the United States for two years but does not provide a long-term authorization to stay. This is not what we did after Vietnam, when we granted refugees a fast track to work authorization and permanent residency. Now many of the Afghan paroles are expiring. If the paroles expire, they lose the right to be in the United States, and they may be kicked out. The bottom line is that without the passage of legislation for the Afghan evacuees like that offered to the Vietnamese, they must comply with existing U.S. government deadlines under existing law and regulations.
In late September, the Afghan Adjustment Act, a bipartisan bill, was introduced to grant Afghan evacuees a path to residency, but it stalled due to security concerns raised by some Republican members of Congress. Inclusion of Afghan refugee relief in Fiscal Year 2022 is dead, and Afghan refugees are now in trouble. “Things are just limping along, and that is as far away as we can think of from meeting our moral obligation,” said Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, as quoted in The New York Times.
It’s important to remember that—as the same September 22 New York Times article puts it—these are, “Afghans who had risked their lives to help Americans during the decades-long war in Afghanistan—as translators, drivers, and fixers—and had to flee the country last year when U.S. forces withdrew.”
One of these refugees is a friend of mine. I worked with Najlla in Afghanistan, close to a decade ago. She was a senior government minister then, one of the few women who led a government office as a civil servant. She is Hazara, an ethic minority group who are predominantly Shia Muslims and are persecuted by the Taliban as infidels. Najlla and her family went into hiding after the fall, finally getting out with 20 family members three weeks later.
Najlla has a green card and today works in a professional position for Pfizer in the United States. Some of the 20 family members also made it to America. Nine remain in a refugee camp in the United Arab Emirates overseen by the United States. They are stateless, stranded, and feel abandoned by the U.S.
When the White House proposed the Afghan Adjustment Act, Senators Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, and Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, sponsored it. They did not start with a blank sheet of paper. They anchored the proposed legislation in language from comparable initiatives passed in response to crises in Cuba, Vietnam, Nicaragua, and Iraq. There is precedent. But the bill did not pass in the continuing resolution. Without the passage of new legislation by Congress, the only legal pathway to U.S. residence for these people is asylum.
“Afghans have found themselves in this real legal limbo because the U.S. government has essentially applied short-term Band-Aids for a population that needs long-term protection,” Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, the president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, told The New York Times.
An opaque process
Opaque describes how accessible most find the asylum process. Application for asylum means the Afghan evacuees, many with limited English language skills, must complete complex and confusing Department of Homeland Security and United States Customs and Immigration Service (USCIS) forms. The forms are a challenge even for native English speakers.
Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area sponsors a series of two-day workshops to explain the process and provide detailed guidance to help the refugees compile comprehensive application packages. As of now, they have completed a dozen. More are expected.
According to Alison Tabor, an immigration attorney who works with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, these self-help workshops address the urgent need of thousands of Afghans to apply for asylum to obtain permanent residency and U.S. citizenship. “Our workshop gives Afghans the information and tools to apply for asylum on their own behalf so they can continue to build safe and fulfilling lives in the United States,” she says.
Sahar Mahmoud Taman, another immigration attorney and Alison’s partner in delivering the two-day workshop, says, “After living in U.S. military camps for months and resettling in their new communities, these refugees now face the hurdles of U.S. immigration law. The Pro Se Asylum Workshop allows hundreds of our new Afghan neighbors to take their power as new Americans and use their new knowledge of asylum law to help themselves and their families.”
Recently at one of these workshops I met a young mother who escaped with four of her children—the youngest just a year old—in the mass exodus from Kabul. Her husband and another child remain stranded in Pakistan. Now they must start over in Virginia, if they can establish a pathway to legal residence for all of them there.
At the same workshop I sat next to a young man whose brother died in a Taliban bomb explosion. He spent days in hiding before his escape with the U.S. exodus. College educated with good English skills, he now earns a living as a cab driver.
We understand supply chain problems. We know how to repair supply chains. We understand how to build supply chains in a crisis, supply chains with a human face. Our country knows how to do it; we’ve done it before. Our Afghan allies deserve better.
The National Churchill Museum credits Prime Minister Winston Churchill with saying, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing—after they’ve tried everything else.”
Afghan refugees hope Churchill’s prediction comes true.