The first requests came to U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips’ team over the weekend on Aug. 14.
At first, it was a trickle: calls from relatives and friends of those stuck in Afghanistan, all hoping that a member of Congress could help evacuate their loved ones.
That trickle soon turned into a deluge. On Aug. 17, Phillips posted what his staff now calls the “tweet heard ’round the world,” listing contact information for his team and urging constituents to contact them for help. The message, also posted on Facebook and Instagram, spread like wildfire among refugee aid organizations.
“I think I underestimated how broadly that tweet would be shared and how many would find possibility in it,” said Phillips, who represents Minnesota’s 3rd Congressional District. “And I think what’s most important is to salute the literally hundreds of oftentimes early career staffers … that are spending a lot of time on this, every single hour of the day.”
On Thursday, as the U.S. continued struggling to extract U.S. citizens, allies and vulnerable Afghans from the country amid the Taliban’s takeover, an ISIS-K suicide bomber detonated his explosive belt outside the Kabul airport. A second explosion followed at the nearby Baron Hotel, then gunfire. At least 13 U.S. service members have been confirmed dead and 18 wounded. The explosions also killed and injured an unverified number of civilians, but the figure is expected to be in the hundreds.
President Joe Biden created a self-imposed deadline of Aug. 31 to get people out of Afghanistan, and Taliban forces have latched onto that date as the last day U.S. forces can remain in the country.
As the date approaches, hundreds of people have reached out to congressional offices looking for help, work that has largely fallen to young staffers suddenly thrust into a large-scale, global humanitarian crisis. “Members of Congress will often take the credit,” Phillips said. “But the truth is, the real hard work, the heavy lifting, very emotional heavy lifting in this case too, is a result of remarkable young public servants.”
Since mid-August, Phillips’ team — and many other congressional offices — have worked around the clock to intake calls and emails, many from veterans in other states hoping to help get their former translators to safety. Other calls come from Afghans themselves, desperate for a chance to escape the country that was so quickly taken over by Taliban forces.
Junior staffers on most congressional teams are not authorized to speak to the press, but they agreed to talk about the work they’ve been doing over the last two weeks on the condition that only their first names are used.
Sophie, a legislative assistant in D.C., has been liaising with the State Department in an attempt to pass the names of American citizens, visa and green card holders and Afghan allies to troops on the ground in Afghanistan, an effort that has been “overwhelming” for both staff and the constituents and families trying to get people out of the country.
The intake process for all calls and emails sent to the office starts with four members of the staff: three early-career staffers and a combat veteran of the war in Afghanistan who now serves as a Wounded Warrior fellow.
At first, when Phillips was one of the few congressmen to list contact information online, his staffers were taking calls from across the country and forwarding their information to the State Department. But once the number of calls picked up and more congressional offices started their own efforts, Phillips’ team tried to only take constituents from his district and send others to their respective representatives.
With the huge influx of calls, staffers had to prioritize people with verifiable documentation, like Special Immigrant Visas or P1 and P2 immigration status case numbers, as well as passport information and passport photos. The State Department told congressional offices they’d prioritize people who were “easier to vet,” like those with verified connections to U.S. citizens or veterans of the war in Afghanistan.
Combat veterans who were vouching for their former interpreters were asked to provide military records that confirmed their interpreters’ involvement with the U.S. military.
Last weekend, the State Department created a new triage data entry platform, so staffers spent hours re-entering documentation into the State Department’s spreadsheet and unearthing passport photos, an aspect of the process that vividly illustrates the stakes of the ongoing crisis.
“We’ve now seen too many passport photos of the innocent children who have been denied at the airport to sit idly without trying everything we can,” said Rollie, a constituent advocate on Phillips’ Minnesota team.
The office is currently working on more than 60 open requests for urgent evacuation, involving around 450 individuals. They’ve also teamed up with the nonprofit organization No One Left Behind to forward the names of more than 1,200 Afghans to the State Department. In total, the team has referred more than 1,650 names to the State Department in the past week.
“The extraordinarily long nights and weekends these last two weeks have been exhausting but cannot compare to the emotional toll this is taking on these families who are fearing for the lives of their loved ones,” Rollie said.
So far, Phillips’ team has been able to confirm evacuation from seven of their cases, which a staff member said felt like a “very low number” compared to the amount of requests they’ve received. The successful evacuations include the wife and daughter of a U.S. citizen from Bloomington, a family of six people who were able to make it to Qatar, an interpreter who worked with U.S. forces and his family who made it to Washington, D.C., and the families of four interpreters who escaped to the U.S. and Italy.
Phillips’ team isn’t the only group working around the clock to facilitate evacuations, of course. Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s staff said they have seen a large influx of calls as well. The senator said that her office is “currently handling over 100 cases that have been referred to us from Minnesotans and their families and loved ones,” and that they have already successfully helped a number of people move to safe locations.
Phillips emphasized that efforts are being made from both Republican and Democratic offices.
Frustrations mount as time runs out
Although they’ve celebrated the few successful evacuations they’ve facilitated, staffers have been frustrated by the lack of transparency from the State Department.
Phillips’ team said they’ve been provided minimal information about the situation unfolding in Afghanistan, and that the evacuation inquiries the team sends over are met with general responses, but nothing specific to each case. They also said they are lacking information about what types of assistance individuals would be eligible for, and if it’s even worth it for some to apply for Special Immigrant Visas.
People from multiple offices have confirmed that there is a group chat with 250 congressional staffers (the maximum amount for a Microsoft Teams group chat) where they share information with each other.
Phillips said he is also frustrated by the way the White House has handled the evacuation efforts, particularly with the self-imposed Aug. 31 deadline. “I can say with certainty that it is the position of the U.S. Congress Democrats and Republicans that we cannot let an artificial date dictate our obligation, particularly to Americans,” Phillips said. “[The Aug. 31 deadline] was a mistake. I don’t know how anybody could look at the circumstances and classify it otherwise.”
Phillips’ staffers know that the clock is ticking on evacuation efforts, but they’re trying to do as much as they can while there’s still time. “Though it is ultimately not up to us to decide who gets on a plane out of Afghanistan, our mission is to make sure we’ve done our part to advocate for every man, woman, and child … that has called us asking for help getting their loved ones an evacuation,” Rollie said.
On Thursday, Biden made an address to the nation vowing to complete the evacuation of American citizens and others from Afghanistan despite the deadly suicide bomb attack at the Kabul airport earlier that day. “We will not forgive. We will not forget,” Biden said. “We will hunt you down and make you pay.”
But as the situation in Afghanistan worsens and the deaths of 12 troops weigh heavy on those on the ground in Kabul, it’s unclear how many more people the U.S. will be able to evacuate.
Still, the staffers say they will continue to work as long as they can, even if they know they may never know the fate of the cases they work on.
“So many people will never know about or hear the stories we are getting, sometimes from callers in Afghanistan,” said Johnny, a staff assistant on Phillips’ stateside team. “I really wish people had direct exposure to the civilians of Afghanistan to gain perspective on what they’re going through.”