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California's 40th District

A former Afghan prosecutor, a man responsible for convicting multiple members of the Taliban, is desperate for help in getting himself and his family safely out of Afghanistan and to his sister’s home in the Inland Empire.

His is one of hundreds of cases taken to Southern California congress members over the past week, with representatives and their staffs working nonstop in an effort to help U.S. citizens and allies evacuate Afghanistan before Tuesday’s deadline for American forces to fully withdraw.

Representatives say they’ve coordinated with the State Department to successfully get several dozen people airlifted from Afghanistan. Details of those cases are largely being kept confidential, to protect families in transit and relatives left behind.

But all congressional offices were given one State Department email address to funnel requests, so some local representatives said they’ve been reaching out to other federal agencies, nongovernmental organizations and the White House for help.

Still, as of Friday, hundreds of people remained on local representatives’ casework lists, with no clarity about when, or if, those residents will be able to evacuate.

“So far we have 24 open cases — majority of which are veterans or aid workers concerned about the Afghan nationals they worked with during their time in Afghanistan,” Faith Mabry, press secretary for Rep. Michelle Steel, R-Seal Beach, said Friday morning.

“Our office has sent inquiries to the State Department regarding the status of the Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) for these individuals and are actively trying to push these cases forward.”

A spokesman for Rep. Mike Levin, D-San Juan Capistrano, said their office — which represents communities in and near Camp Pendleton — has received more than 100 calls for help, and they’ve asked the State Department to evacuate all of those people. Rep. Katie Porter, D-Irvine, has requested help for “for hundreds of Americans and Afghans,” per her office. Staffers for Rep. Young Kim, R-La Habra, are working to help 30 families in Afghanistan, while Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, said his office is working on 11 active cases covering the evacuation of 128 people.

The situation became more dire early Thursday, when news spread that bombs outside the Kabul airport killed and wounded dozens of people, including 13 American service members.

Lance Cpl. Kareem Mae’Lee Grant Nikoui, a young Marine from Norco, and Marine Cpl. Hunter Lopez of the Coachella Valley were among the Americans killed. And an Afghan interpreter and his wife, who Kim’s office said were on a local evacuation list because the man had worked with a Marine from Orange County, were two of the estimated 180 Afghans killed in the attacks.

Staffers said the recent volume of requests connected to the Afghan evacuation is unprecedented.

Jason Gagnon, spokesman for Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Corona, said their office has contacted the State Department on behalf of 340 people over the past week. Most, he said, fall in the category known as “Afghans at Risk,” including an interpreter who worked with the U.S. military.

Local advocates working to help Afghans say they haven’t been able to quickly reach all local representatives regarding high priority cases. They also wish congress members were doing more to proactively connect with Afghan refugees living in Southern California, many of whom now are trying to get relatives out of the country but may not know how to — or even that they can — ask their representatives for help.

That was the case for an Afghan refugee living in Orange County who attended an Aug. 25 vigil in Garden Grove that was put on by World Relief Southern California. The man said he spent 11 years providing security for American forces before getting a special U.S. visa in 2017. As he showed photos of immigration documents and embassy requests for his wife, who remains stuck in Kabul, he wiped away tears. The man said he wasn’t sure who his representative in Congress was or how to reach him.

Jose Serrano, outreach director for World Relief Southern California, recommended local refugees contact the offices of New Jersey Rep. Andy Kim or Arkansas Sen. Tim Cotton to get help for family members still in Kabul. Kim and Cotton have been highly responsive, Serrano said, and have set up dedicated contact lines for people to request help.

A couple Southern California representatives, including Lowenthal, have set up similar portals. Many have been actively sharing information on social media. A few, including Porter, had been largely quiet on the situation.

Serrano discussed organizing a march to the office of Rep. Lou Correa, D-Anaheim, who covers a district with a high population of Afghan families. He said he’d invited Correa, or someone from his office, to attend the vigil but hadn’t heard back. (Correa’s office said the congressman was traveling to California from Washington, D.C.)

“We have all hands-on deck; our casework and our field rep staff involved,” said Marysol Ibarra, Correa’s communications director.

“We have staff constantly reviewing our incoming email and phone messages. If there are any individuals that have not ‘heard back from our office,’ please let us know. We’re taking all Afghanistan inquiries immediately and responding immediately.”

So far, Correa’s office has helped to get at least six individuals out of Afghanistan.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-El Cajon, announced that four families in the San Diego portion of his 50th District, which also includes southern Riverside County, have been evacuated from Kabul over the past two days.

Issa said his office was contacted by local school officials and relatives about several local families with children stranded in Afghanistan. Another request came via a form that Issa’s office created on his website. His office contacted the State Department, the Department of Defense and the White House for help, and Issa said the families were safely evacuated.

As of Friday, the United States had evacuated more than 100,000 people over the past two weeks. Estimates of how many people still need to get out are fluid. Reports Thursday estimated that more than 1,000 U.S. citizens and at least 250,000 Afghans who’d helped U.S. forces during the 20-year war still hadn’t been evacuated.

This process was set in motion in February 2020, when then-President Donald Trump negotiated a withdrawal agreement with the Taliban and set May 1, 2021 as the end date. Trump reduced the number of troops in Afghanistan down to around 2,500 before he left office in January.

Biden pushed the deadline for full withdrawal of U.S. troops back, initially to Sept. 11 and then to Aug. 31.

Calvert said for several months he and other members of Congress have been asking the Biden administration about plans to safely remove U.S. military, diplomatic personnel and Afghans who supported American forces before the pending deadline.

“I am beyond frustrated and angry with how this evacuation has been planned and carried out,” Calvert said Friday. “But for now we are focused on doing what we can to help save as many people as possible.”

Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Santa Clarita, on Friday called for Biden to shift the process from a diplomatic mission under the State Department to a military mission under the Department of Defense.

Local Democrats also are expressing concerns about how the withdrawal has been handled, though they’re casting a wider net.

“It is clear that a comprehensive investigation is needed of the strategic decisions made with regard to Afghanistan from the Bush-Cheney Administration onward,” Levin said. “I welcome congressional hearings on the events of the last several months, as well as the many decisions over the last 20 years that brought us to this point.”

Meanwhile, local representatives from both sides of the aisle are calling on the White House to extend the Aug. 31 deadline if more time is needed to safely evacuate all Americans and Afghan allies.

“It’s critical that we continue to evacuate as many of our Afghan allies as possible, particularly women and children who are most at risk from violence, regardless of any arbitrary deadline,” Levin said.

Rep. Mark Takano, D-Riverside, echoed that request, though his office also said he “supports President Biden’s decision to end what could have been a forever war.”

A number of Southern California Democrats signed a letter this week that asks the Biden administration to allow at least 200,000 refugees in the coming fiscal year — up from the current annual limit of 62,500.

Twenty-five House Democrats also wrote to Biden on Wednesday, expressing support for making California a “safe harbor” for Afghan refugees.

“We have a moral obligation to provide refuge to those who fought for democracy and human rights alongside American troops for the past 20 years,” said Rep. Linda Sánchez, D-Whitter, who signed both letters.

Anyone who needs help getting someone out of Afghanistan is urged to call or email their local House member’s district or Washington, D.C. office, with details at house.gov/representatives/find-your-representative.

San Gabriel Valley Tribune 

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