Afghan Refugees Destined for Colorado Stuck in Limbo

Afghan nationals have fled to Hamid Karzai International Airport to flee the country now controlled by the Taliban.
Afghan nationals have fled to Hamid Karzai International Airport to flee the country now controlled by the Taliban. Twitter
As the Taliban continued to seize province after province in Afghanistan in recent weeks, Colorado prepared to welcome hundreds of Afghan nationals over the coming months.

"We had been expecting to see quite an influx of people through those various channels," says Jennifer Wilson, executive director of the International Rescue Committee Denver. The majority would be Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applicants who had been set to leave Afghanistan for the U.S.

But when the Taliban took control of Kabul on August 15 — and commercial flights were grounded at Hamid Karzai International Airport, closing the last air route out of the country, at least temporarily — Wilson worried that the influx would be cut off. "In this moment, we don't know whether [or] when those evacuations will resume," she said early on August 16.

SIV applicants are people who have worked with Americans in Afghanistan over the past twenty years, most notably as combat interpreters. They and their families — a group numbering in the tens of thousands — are considered high priorities for refugee resettlement owing to the threat of revenge torture and killing by the Taliban, the extremist militant group that has recently been documented executing surrendered soldiers. The United States is also accepting refugees from Afghanistan under what's known as the Priority 2 designation for people who are at risk because of their affiliation with America but don't qualify for an SIV visa.

"While the Biden administration has the right framework in place for refugee protections and programs and mechanisms they've put in place, the delays, the details and implementation are not working. People are in harm's way imminently," says Wilson.

Over the past two decades, many SIV recipients have resettled in Colorado, Wilson says. Whether they want to be near family members or friends who've already landed in Colorado, or close to active-duty servicemen and veterans with whom they served in Afghanistan, SIV recipients often end up in metro Denver and Colorado Springs. The economy is good here, she points out, and the nearby Rocky Mountains help people from mountainous Afghanistan feel more at home.

"We also have a really welcoming state, by and large," she says.

And Colorado remains ready to welcome the SIV recipients as soon as they can leave.

"We can get thousands and thousands of people out," Congressman Jason Crow, a Democrat from Aurora, said during an August 16 press conference in which he implored the U.S. to keep the Kabul airport, which had just reopened, accessible as long as possible.

Crow, who worked with local interpreter "comrades" while serving as an Army paratrooper in Iraq and an Army Ranger in Afghanistan, was one of the members of Congress leading the push for the U.S. to process SIV applications faster, as well as raise the number of potential SIV recipients from Afghanistan.

On July 22, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation that did just that. The Senate passed matching legislation a week later.

"We should’ve started this evacuation months ago. We certainly have extreme concerns about the later nature in which this evacuation was started," said Crow, whose district director and deputy chief of staff, Maytham Alshadood, served as a combat interpreter in Iraq and came to the U.S. as an SIV recipient. "There’s still an opportunity to do the right thing."

Afghan community members are organizing a protest to call "for peace and an end to the violence and humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan" at 6 p.m. on August 19 — Afghanistan's National Independence Day — outside the Colorado State Capitol. Find more information here.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.