More than 100 people have departed Afghanistan in last three weeks with the support of Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Santa Clarita, whose office has helped or is in the process of helping nearly 300 people evacuate the country.
The United States Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital city, ceased all operations Tuesday.
All U.S. military forces left Afghanistan by that date per a deal brokered between the U.S. and the Taliban, which has taken full control of the country where the U.S. has had a military presence for 20 years.
Despite the deal, some U.S. citizens and people with special immigrant visas (SIVs) – Afghans who were employed by and/or on behalf of the U.S. government – were denied access to the Hamid Karzai Airport at Taliban-controlled checkpoints, Garcia told The Signal on Friday.
“It started off two to three weeks ago with just local constituents who had family in Afghanistan that were trying to get out,” he said.
Garcia said his office then started hearing from people who wanted SIVs and others who live outside the 25th Congressional District.
“When we started having more successes, we started getting more folks from around the country reaching out,” he said, noting a few other congressional offices have joined the effort to help evacuate.
Garcia’s staff set up an operations center in their Simi Valley office to field the growing volume of requests he was receiving by text message and different platforms.
The congressman’s team, led by district director Charles Navarro, used those channels “to communicate with guys on the ground, special operators, in some cases, who were just helping us move people to the right locations, helping us get folks on the list,” he said.
“These are people that would have not been able to get out through the normal channels,” Garcia said of the people his office is helping, noting Americans have had fewer options to evacuate since Aug. 30.
Garcia also worked with the U.S. Department of State, which oversees the “normal channels.”
“We actually had high failure rates when we were trying to follow the protocols with the State Department versus working with the networks on the ground and other congressional offices,” said Garcia.
State Department protocols involved showing documents at checkpoints where, Garcia said, the Taliban would deny passage.
Garcia said a U.S. citizen — who immigrated from Afghanistan and is now living in northern California — was able to leave Afghanistan, where he was visiting family and friends, and called to thank him and his office for helping him evacuate.
“(He was) on the verge of tears thanking me (and) our office for getting him back,” he said. “He’s alive because of what we did.”
Now, Garcia’s office is closely following the case of a woman and her three children who, Garcia said, have U.S. passports, but were denied access by the Taliban to a flight leaving Afghanistan.
The mother sent Garcia a video showing her family’s passports on camera.
“They got turned away and we were able to get them back into the hands of the good guys that have been escorting them around,” he said.
Garcia, who addressed his office’s effort during his Santa Clarita Valley telephone town hall Friday, said a common challenge now is safely evacuating American citizens with Afghan families.
“We have dozens of American citizens on our list, that aren’t coming home because their wife and kids are Afghan,” he said, noting these Americans are right not to leave their family behind.
Through it all, Garcia said, he acknowledged to his team the difficulty of the situation.
“I was telling my team yesterday (that) what we’re seeing in these text messages with the stories, the images, the videos and just the reality of (it). We’re helping some but not all. It’s a tough thing to deal with,” he said.
Reflecting on how the evacuation was handled, Garcia said the U.S. should have been characterizing its enemies and its allies earlier than it did.
“We should have started what we were doing in the last six weeks 18 months ago,” he said, noting the U.S. should’ve kept control of Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul, to “maintain the peace” and provide “a strategic foothold in the backyard of Russia and China.”