This article was published with support from Columbia University’s Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights.
HAGÅTÑA, GUAM—Before the Taliban toppled the US-backed government of Afghanistan, refugee advocates and government insiders had been calling on President Joe Biden to take steps to evacuate Afghans at risk of violence. They offered resources, ideas, and expertise, but for months they received no response. The State Department sluggishly issued “special immigrant visas” for those who had helped the US military, seemingly with no plan for what to do with the tens of thousands of SIV applicants—and those facing persecution who don’t fall under SIV parameters—who would be stranded in Afghanistan when the US troops were gone.
Among those willing to help was Governor Lourdes Leon Guerrero of Guam, a US territory in the Western Pacific. On June 12, she sent a letter to Biden. “Guam has stood ready to serve as a safe and secure route for this type of humanitarian effort throughout our history,” she wrote. “And today, it is no different. I assure you that my administration is prepared to assist” should Biden call on Guam to provide safe haven to refugees. She was echoing a plan advocates had been calling for since the spring: the “Guam option,” which would work around immigration bureaucracy by having the military airlift refugees to the island while they waited for their US visas or for another country to take them in. But the White House ghosted Leon Guerrero, too. After sending the June letter, the governor received “no formal written response,” according to a spokesperson.
On August 14, hours before the Taliban marched into Afghanistan’s capital and the first harrowing scenes at the Kabul airport unfolded, the federal government finally began contacting nongovernmental groups, coordinating more deliberately between agencies, and revving Operation Allies Refuge into overdrive. Chaos predictably ensued, and the evacuation of Afghanistan is ramping up when it should be nearly complete. Amid the ongoing, deadly pandemonium, advocates have wondered why Washington continuously ignored proposals like the Guam option. Arash Azizzada, an organizer with Afghans for a Better Tomorrow, a diaspora activist group, told me, “The Biden administration’s steadfastness in refusing to consider or take action that would mirror the Guam option is costing precious Afghan lives that are at risk with every passing hour.”