Pushing for pathways for Afghan allies and those 'left behind'

Zubih Rauf, left, James Powers, center, and Matt Zeller in front of the state Capitol in Salt Lake City. They are traveling the country garnering support for the Afghan Adjustment Act — legislation that would establish a pathway to permanent residency for thousands of Afghan humanitarian parolees.

Zubih Rauf, left, James Powers, center, and Matt Zeller in front of the state Capitol in Salt Lake City. They are traveling the country garnering support for the Afghan Adjustment Act — legislation that would establish a pathway to permanent residency for thousands of Afghan humanitarian parolees. (Matt Zeller)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Matt Zeller, a former Army captain who served in Afghanistan, stands outside the Salt Lake offices of Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney, hoping someone will meet with him.

"The reason why is really simple," he said. "I'm only standing here talking to you right now, because my Afghan interpreter saved my life in a battle 14 years ago, when he shot and killed two people who were about to kill me. He was standing next to me because he believed that the American people were honorable people who kept our word."

Zeller, a senior adviser for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, has been traveling the country, talking to members of Congress, trying to garner support for the Afghan Adjustment Act — legislation that would establish a pathway to permanent residency for thousands of Afghan humanitarian parolees who arrived in the U.S. after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Over the past three weeks, Zeller has logged about 3,000 miles from where he started in Washington, traveling with James Powers, an Iraq war veteran, and Zubih Rauf, of the Human First Coalition, an organization providing humanitarian aid and facilitating evacuations in Afghanistan.

"In our journeys, we've been stopping at every Senate office, every VFW, every American Legion along the way, meeting with the elected officials, meeting with veterans, as well as meeting with members of the Afghan diaspora," Zeller said. "We have yet to meet the individual who doesn't want to get this law passed. Every single person we've talked to once they understand that it's veterans, in particular, and the faith community that's trying to get this law passed, they adamantly want to support it and ask, you know, what can they do to join our cause?"

Draper resident Merinda Cutler joined the group outside the Federal Building, along with her 4-year-old daughter. Cutler is an immigration manager for Mormon Women for Ethical Government, a nonpartisan organization that does not officially represent The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"We as members of the church, we take it seriously — the call to welcome the stranger," Cutler said. "There's a lot of scriptures in the Bible about welcoming the stranger, about welcoming the foreigner into your home. And our modern church has invited us to do that over the past few years, and so we have that spiritual mandate."

After working to help resettle refugees, Cutler saw a need to become politically involved. She's had meetings with several congressional representatives about the Afghan Adjustment Act. She's concerned about the uncertain status of those that are resettled in U.S. communities.

"It really makes a lot of sense to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act for these tens of thousands of people who are here already. We welcomed them warmly into our communities; they're working, the kids are in school," she said. "They're in limbo right now, because they don't know if they'll be able to stay, and they can't go back to Afghanistan."

The vast majority of the more than 79,000 Afghans who arrived in the U.S. in 2021 came as humanitarian parolees, which means they do not have permanent legal status. They must apply for asylum or a green card, which can take years for approval. It is unclear what will happen once their parole runs out.

The Senate legislation sponsored by three Republicans and three Democrats would allow Afghans with temporary status to undergo additional vetting to apply for permanent legal residency.

It also affects those allies who are still in Afghanistan and currently have no legal avenue to leave. For Zeller, that makes passage of this law urgent.

"There are still some 300,000 interpreters and their family members who have applied for the Special Immigrant Visa program, who remain left behind. And without this law, they have no viable pathway to the United States," Zeller said.

The Special Immigrant Visa program was established for allies who worked with the U.S. Armed Forces or as translators in Iraq or Afghanistan. But wIthout a U.S. embassy in Afghanistan, there is currently no way for Afghans to complete their applications for Special Immigrant Visa status. And even if they could, Zeller estimates that at the current rate of processing, it could take 18 years for the government to make its way through the backlog of visa applications.

"These people don't have 18 years," he said. "Most of them are going to be dead by next spring, because either the Taliban will have hunted them down and murdered them, or the ongoing famine is going to kill them."

James Powers, Left, and Matt Zeller in front of Utah Sen. Mitt Romney's office in Spanish Fork.
James Powers, Left, and Matt Zeller in front of Utah Sen. Mitt Romney's office in Spanish Fork. (Photo: Matt Zeller)

The new legislation would establish an interagency task force to prioritize and streamline visa applications, and create a pathway for those still in Afghanistan to apply. Zeller said the fate of American veterans is inextricably bound to our Afghan allies.

"They stood shoulder to shoulder with us in our nation's longest war," he said. "Given the amount of combat (we) saw together, our community feels that we left behind a generation of our fellow veterans, and it's our obligation to get them home. The reality is, so long as we continue to fail to keep that promise, veterans are going to suffer from a profound moral injury."

According to a poll of Iraq and Afghan Veterans of America, 41% of the members now say they are suffering a moral injury due to the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

"I know of five veterans that killed themselves over the last year because of the guilt." Zeller pauses as his eyes fill with tears. "Because the guilt that they felt, having left these people behind to die, and not having any viable option to help them get home."

Zeller also believes it's a matter of national security.

"We're out here doing this to make sure that future generations of Americans who serve in our military have just as much of a chance of coming home alive as I did," Zeller said. "Because they'll have an ally standing next to them like I did, because their allies will continue to believe that we are still people who keep our word. But if we don't get this done now, if we leave these Afghans truly behind to die, the prevailing narrative around the world will be that we are people who can't be trusted.

"And well, that will ultimately lead to more Americans coming home in body bags."

Standing outside the Federal Building on State Street, Zeller was holding out hope to find some support in Utah's senators. His visit came just days after Utah Gov. Spencer Cox sent a letter to Congress, encouraging support of the Afghan Adjustment Act. Utah Rep. John Curtis is also a sponsor of a version of the bill in the House.

"I'm optimistic, particularly of Sen. Romney. He's been a tremendous supporter of the SIV program in the past. He's been a tremendous supporter of veterans in the past," Zeller said. "Utah has been such a wonderful welcoming state for refugees, particularly our Afghan allies. When you learn what this law is attempting to do, it seems to make intuitive sense that he'd be on board with something like this."

Since the senators' offices had not responded to their earlier requests for a meeting, the group decided to go inside and ask in person. They were invited upstairs to meet with Romney and Lee staffers, where they shared their points of view, and the staff agreed to pass the information along. Romney's press secretary, Arielle Mueller, then sent this statement to KSL:

"The administration's withdrawal from Afghanistan was a travesty that upended and endangered the lives of many of our Afghan partners," Mueller wrote. "The senator is monitoring the Judiciary Committee's ongoing negotiations on this legislation and will review it should it come to the Senate floor."

The veterans spent three days in Utah, stopping at the senators' offices in Spanish Fork and St. George before continuing their journey. Every place they stop, they put out a video on social media.

"We need your help to get this law passed," Zeller said into his phone as he videotaped the small group in Salt Lake City. "History is made by people who show up."


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Andrea Smardon
Is an award-winning journalist, host and current podcast producer for KSL Podcasts.


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