Resettling Afghans Who Aided US Efforts a Matter of Justice, Some Claim

Catholic foreign-policy experts agree America has an obligation to help but differ on whether resettlement in the U.S. should be prioritized.

An Afghan boy walks with a U.S. service member as he and his family are led through the Dulles International Airport to board a bus that will take them to a refugee processing center after being evacuated from Kabul following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan on August 31, 2021 in Dulles, Virginia.
An Afghan boy walks with a U.S. service member as he and his family are led through the Dulles International Airport to board a bus that will take them to a refugee processing center after being evacuated from Kabul following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan on August 31, 2021 in Dulles, Virginia. (photo: Anna Moneymaker / AFP/Getty)

WASHINGTON — After 20 years, the United States officially ended its military presence in Afghanistan on Aug. 31. Now, attention shifts squarely to the question of resettling Afghan refugees displaced by the conflict, especially those who aided the U.S.-led effort, as well as women and religious minorities who face repression in the aftermath of the Taliban’s swift return to power.

The U.S. alone evacuated more than 122,000 people from Afghanistan since Aug. 14, a number that includes thousands of American citizens but is mostly comprised of Afghans. Thousands of Afghan evacuees are waiting at U.S. military installments in places like Qatar, where they are processed and await a more permanent destination. President Joe Biden has announced his intention to resettle 50,000-65,000 Afghans in the U.S.

Catholics who have aided these resettlement efforts and will play a central role in the weeks and months to come describe their involvement as a matter of justice, not merely generosity.

Mario Russell, director of Immigration and Refugees Services for Catholic Charities USA, said the U.S. government has “a profound moral and social obligation” to provide for Afghans who helped the United States and are now at risk. Catholic Charities USA and its regional affiliates are working to resettle Afghan refugees and Special Immigrant Visa applicants, often meeting new arrivals at the U.S. military bases where they are initially housed and aiding them in their transition to American cities, from San Diego to Atlanta. The organization is receiving donations to support its efforts to provide aid to Afghan families seeking resettlement, while some local affiliates are providing opportunities to volunteer.

Catholic organizations used similar language in their vocal calls for the Biden administration to expedite the evacuation of Afghans at risk. 

“Our government owes a debt of service to the Afghan people, not to mention the moral responsibility it has to help the women and children of Afghanistan who are now in imminent danger,” said Fran Eskin-Royer, executive director of the National Advocacy Center of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd. 

Eskin-Royer also said her organization was “gravely concerned” about the safety of “Christians and those of other non-Muslim faiths,” saying that “we need get them out and give them welcome.”

As massive as the U.S. evacuation efforts were, they accounted for only a third of the 263,000 Afghan citizens who the International Rescue Committee estimates were affiliated with the U.S.’ nation-building efforts and now face Taliban reprisal. Evacuation efforts were hampered by the Taliban, which set up check points around the airport in Kabul and blocked Afghan citizens from leaving, but also by U.S. shortcomings. 


Church Teaching

Prior to the end of evacuations, Catholic foreign-policy experts who spoke to the Register grounded the imperative for U.S. action on behalf of Afghan refugees in the Church’s social teaching.

“I believe we have an obligation to give sanctuary to Afghans who worked closely with the U.S. government and military, including other NATO forces,” said Michael Desch, the director of the Notre Dame International Security Center, citing the Church’s Tradition on just war but also recent teaching on welcoming immigrants and refugees. 

Desch said the U.S. also has a “general obligation” to the Afghan people going forward to “do what we can to ensure they live in peace and freedom,” after “well-intentioned” but failed nation-building efforts over the past 20 years. Living conditions in the Central Asian country have improved considerably over the past two decades, but have been declining in recent years and are expected to fall off significantly, especially if foreign aid to the country — now controlled by a militant Islamist group best known for harboring international terrorists — is cut off.

In seeking guidance on the U.S. responsibility going forward, Jesuit Father Drew Christiansen points to Pope St. John Paul II’s 2002 message for the World Day of Peace. Entitled “No Future Without Justice, No Justice Without Forgiveness,” the address was issued on Jan. 1, only weeks after the U.S. had conducted its invasion of Afghanistan and begun its occupation. 

While the Holy Father spoke about the right to defend one’s nation against terrorism, he also wrote about the need for “a courageous and resolute dislocation and economic commitment to relieving situations of oppression and marginalization which facilitate the designs of terrorists.”

Father Christiansen, a senior fellow at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, suggests “the special burden of [John Paul’s] message was a profound and searching reflection on the need of forgiveness to bring a just conclusion to a just war.”

“What does papal teaching urge us to do at the end of the long war in Afghanistan?” Father Christiansen asked rhetorically. “It urges support of international efforts at reconstruction and development, and it encourages Americans to create the conditions for reconciliation and forgiveness between our peoples.”


 Security Concerns

Regarding refugee resettlement, 81% of Americans support taking in those who aided the U.S. effort in Afghanistan, according to a recent CBS News/YouGov poll. The support for refugee resettlement includes 79% of those who voted for former President Donald Trump, who severely restricted refugee resettlement during his tenure and has recently criticized the Biden administration for an alleged lack of vetting of refugees before resettlement.

“We can only imagine how many thousands of terrorists have been airlifted out of Afghanistan and into neighborhoods around the world,” Trump suggested. 

Jessica Vaughn, policy director for the Center for Immigration Studies, and a Catholic, stresses that while America should offer aid to Afghans who aided U.S. efforts and U.S. Catholics should welcome those who are resettled in their communities “as if he is Jesus,” “it’s simply not feasible to resettle everyone [in the U.S.].”

Vaughn suggests there is nothing in Catholic teaching that necessitates the U.S. resettle Afghan refugees in America and argues that the Biden administration would actually be failing in its responsibilities if it neglected the safety of the U.S. people by admitting individuals who could pose a threat to Americans, a concern Vaugh has, given the expedited and somewhat disorganized evacuation of Afghan refugees and the prevalence of terrorist activity in the country.

Vaughn said she would like to see the U.S. focus its refugee assistance on helping Afghans find safe haven in the region, not in America, “so that they might return to their homes if conditions settle down.” She said the U.S. should also take a lead role in providing aid to Afghans.

“The way Americans can help the most people is to join international efforts to find safe havens for those at risk of persecution, ideally within the region, so that they might return to their homes if conditions settle down,” said Vaughn, adding that the U.S. should also provide material aid to Afghans in need.


‘Special Obligation’

Father Christiansen, however, believes the U.S. ought to be taking the lead in resettling Afghan evacuees. He suggests that, at a time when other countries that have formerly received Afghan refugees have closed off their borders, the U.S. should welcome them as a matter of justice, especially considering the leading role the U.S. government played in bringing about present conditions in Afghanistan.

“Given its history in Afghanistan, its long tradition as a land of refuge, and the continental scope of its territory, the U.S. has a special obligation to receive Afghan refugees.”