Washington state should welcome Afghan refugees and allies with open arms

Forty-six years ago, Washington Governor Dan Evans exhibited one of the finest displays of leadership not just in Washington state history, but American history.

Even before South Vietnamese refugees began arriving in the United States after the fall of Saigon in April 1975, Evans had made clear they would be welcome here.

Other leaders, including California Governor Jerry Brown, didn’t share the same sentiment. Although refugees were being housed at Camp Pendleton in San Diego County, Brown told the media: “California cannot afford more unemployment which the refugee influx would spur.”

Upon learning of Brown’s words, Evans immediately sent special assistant Ralph Munro to Camp Pendleton. Within days, Munro had penned and distributed a letter to the camp’s refugees inviting them to make Washington state their new home.

When the first refugees started arriving at Camp Murray a week later, Evans was there to greet them. “Perhaps the weather here is a little colder than you are accustomed to,” he said. “But I know the people of Washington have a very warm feeling toward you and welcome you here as new citizens.”

Evans was right. Washingtonians stepped up to the plate, and by the end of the year, a total of 843 refugees had been sponsored by families across the state. Thousands more were sponsored in subsequent years.

Today, our nation is at another crossroads. Our response to the events of the past week in Afghanistan will be the basis on which we are judged by history. The sudden collapse of the Afghan government promises to bring about renewed oppression for ordinary Afghans as the Taliban consolidates its grip on power. It also represents a devastating setback for women and girls across the country.

Those at greatest risk, however, are the Afghans who assisted our diplomatic, humanitarian, and military efforts over the past 20 years. Along with American troops and civilians, we must work diligently to evacuate these individuals and welcome them to the United States with open arms.

While there are those who say it’s not our duty to evacuate any Afghans, whether refugee or ally, I believe our shared humanity and what we stand for as a nation compels us to act. Furthermore, I have been struck during my conversations with Washington war veterans by the warmth and compassion they feel for the people they fought for in Afghanistan, especially those who stood up to assist coalition forces throughout the war. By helping the Afghan people in their time of need, we can do more than express our solemn gratitude to our veterans. We can show them that their service was not in vain.

With evacuations underway in Afghanistan, refugees and allies alike will soon begin arriving in Washington state with nothing but the clothes on their backs. How we respond in the coming days and weeks will have reverberations for decades to come.

We should send a clear message that Washington state and its people look forward to welcoming and assisting those fleeing the clutches of the Taliban. My friends on the Pierce County Council did just that earlier this week, issuing a statement that read in part: “Pierce County welcomes all who seek freedom and refuge from the oppressive Taliban regime and invites the Pierce County community to…help our new neighbors find affordable housing, employment, food and mentorship to help them transition into our community in their new home country.”

Throughout our state’s history, we have seen the tremendous generational benefit of opening our doors and welcoming refugees and allies. As this current crisis unfolds, I hope each of us will reflect on Governor Evans’ extraordinary leadership 46 years ago and give generously of our time, talent, and treasure to those who left everything behind to come to this exceptional country and live in freedom.

State Representative J.T. Wilcox, 2nd Legislative District
122A Legislative Building | P.O. Box 40600 | Olympia, WA 98504-0600
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