Editorial: NM right to step up, aid Afghan refugees

New Mexico is doing its share when it comes to accepting Afghan refugees fleeing their home country after the Taliban’s swift takeover there as U.S. troops pulled out.

Evacuees are being taken to Fort Bliss, Texas, but are housed across the state line at the military base’s Doña Ana Range Complex in New Mexico. Others are arriving at Holloman Air Force Base, near Alamogordo.

Mula Akbar, a former State Department diplomat who owns a restaurant in Albuquerque, said he’s proud to see New Mexico “stepping up and helping human beings in a desperate situation.”

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham recently sent a letter to President Joe Biden to say New Mexico has “a proud tradition of welcoming refugees from around the world with open arms, and we make no exception for the people of Afghanistan.”

A bipartisan group of at least 12 other governors from states including California, Arizona, Utah and Massachusetts has likewise offered to take the refugees, who include thousands and thousands who worked with, or otherwise helped, Americans during the 20-year war in Afghanistan, and who fear reprisal from the Taliban.

Religious and other aid groups in southern New Mexico are soliciting clothes and other basic supplies, Archbishop of Santa Fe John C. Wester has called for volunteers and professional staff to provide social services and health assistance to the Afghans, and Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller said, “We want to make sure that there’s a home in Albuquerque for everyone who can get here.”

But in this era of political polarization, even the idea of taking in people who fear they’ll be killed for providing assistance to Americans in a war zone can be reason for a partisan jab. U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell, New Mexico’s only Republican in Congress, and whose district includes both Holloman and the New Mexico part of Fort Bliss, decided to blast Lujan Grisham for being so welcoming so quickly.

Remember, the Afghan evacuees are being housed on military bases, not dumped into the streets of American cities, for now. More recently, Herrell said, “We don’t know how much this is costing us, and who’s going to shoulder the cost and if there will be medical attention.”

But Herrell is right in that there needs to be a solid vetting process before Afghans are resettled into the general population, particularly given the rushed, chaotic and deadly way the withdrawal played out.

The job of vetting evacuees has been turned over to the Department of Homeland Security. The White House maintains that the process will be extensive, while acknowledging that the lack of passports and other documents among some refugees will make things more difficult. Already, there is concern about reports of older Afghan men evacuated with young girls they claimed as “brides” or who were otherwise sexually abused.

Vetting will include study of biometric data on physical characteristics, and review by numerous government and law enforcement agencies, including the Defense Department, the FBI, the National Counterterrorism Center and the intelligence community.

NATO helped, but the Afghan war was foremost our war, and caring for these refugees must be our responsibility first. Still, Biden administration officials say they will work with allies and other partners to resettle at-risk Afghans in third countries.

It’s good that most New Mexico leaders appear to be thinking first about welcoming, and helping, Afghans who helped us fight the Taliban for so long. We owe them that.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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