In the weeks before it happened, Elizabeth Peña heard murmurs from local refugee nonprofits that the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan could shutter.
Peña, who at the time was a congressional aide specializing in immigration cases for then-Rep. John Yarmuth, reached out to the embassy to inquire about the rumors but got little in response.
“What they told me in response is essentially, ‘No, and check our website for any updates about closures,’” said Peña, who is now a senior aide for Rep. Morgan McGarvey, Yarmuth’s successor and fellow Kentucky Democrat.
Not long afterward, in August 2021, the rumors proved true.
The withdrawal of American troops — precipitated by a 2020 deal between the Trump administration and the Taliban, and then carried out by the Biden administration — led to scenes of chaos as the Afghan army fell and the Taliban ascended to power.
The American Embassy in Kabul, which was originally intended to remain open beyond the withdrawal, closed on Aug. 15 as tens of thousands of Americans and allies scrambled to evacuate the country, creating a massive backlog of immigration and related cases.
As the State Department became overwhelmed with inquiries, people trying to leave Afghanistan and families of those trying to escape turned to Congress in large numbers.
“As we see fairly often in casework, when there’s an agency information vacuum, one of the places people go is Congress,” said Anne Meeker, deputy director at the nonprofit POPVOX Foundation, which on Thursday released a new report documenting the travails of congressional caseworkers during and after the Afghanistan withdrawal.
“So congressional offices started getting just a couple of inquiries. … Then as the State Department still wasn’t able to keep up with things on the ground, that just escalated,” Meeker continued.
“We just got flooded,” Peña recalled.
The report highlights the “doom loop” that caseworkers found themselves in. As the State Department became inundated, overflow cases spilled into congressional offices, where caseworkers with little information turned again to executive branch agencies that were already underwater because of internal chaos and inadequate structures for managing cases, Meeker found.
“When caseworkers were unable to get adequate agency responses, they escalated requests and sought other sources of information and support, further complicating the agencies’ efforts to complete the withdrawal,” Meeker, a former caseworker for Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton, writes in the report.
The Afghanistan withdrawal was in many ways unprecedented in its chaos. But it exemplifies the challenges faced by caseworkers, who play an unsung but integral role in congressional offices, when there are surges in cases in the wake of disaster, Meeker said.
‘I feel like I could’ve done more’
A litany of postmortems have been published about the Afghanistan withdrawal, among them a State Department report released last June that faulted both the Trump and Biden administrations.
“The decisions of both President Trump and President Biden to end the U.S. military mission posed significant challenges for the Department as it sought to maintain a robust diplomatic and assistance presence in Kabul and provide continued support to the Afghan government and people,” the report states.
Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle also railed against Biden and the chaos that ensued in Kabul. Moulton, an Iraq war veteran and Meeker’s former boss, was among the most vocal. With then-Rep. Peter Meijer, R-Mich., he secretly flew to Kabul in late August to witness the evacuation, angering the Biden administration and congressional leadership.
“I will never forget how my staff moved heaven and earth to help save lives during the fateful withdrawal from Afghanistan,” Moulton said in a statement accompanying the POPVOX report. “The emotional and physical toll was very real, but we were all determined to evacuate as many Americans and Afghan allies as we could amidst the confusion and danger posed by the Taliban.”
Meeker notes the many “after-action” reports that have been published on the Afghanistan withdrawal. But those mostly focus on executive branch agencies and officials, and not congressional caseworkers.
During the evacuation, Peña said her office began getting around 10 calls about Afghanistan a day, which was unusual for her district. Peña said she felt supported in her office and that colleagues helped relieve her of some of her non-immigration duties, but she was largely left to navigate a complex web of cases on her own.
According to the report, congressional caseworkers during the withdrawal dealt with Special Immigrant Visa cases for Afghans who had helped the U.S. military. They also handled refugee and asylum cases and repatriation cases, to locate and facilitate the return of U.S. citizens in Afghanistan. And they fielded casework involving members of the military and their family.
Peña said many cases that crossed her desk involved people who had immigrated to the U.S. from Afghanistan and had immediate or extended family trying to leave the country. In total, she estimated her office was dealing with 500 individuals who had requested assistance.
“Out of those 500, there were probably less than 10 that I feel like I could say, as a result of our inquiry … successfully got some type of outcome,” Peña said.
Responses from the State Department were rare, and often she felt she was sending requests out into the void.
“It was just an information vacuum,” Peña said. “The public messaging [from the White House] was very broad. It was, ‘We’re going to help anyone who needs help, essentially anyone who’s helped us.’ But there was no ‘how.’ To this day, I can’t really describe a standard process that the department had set out for us to follow.”
Cases also got increasingly desperate, Meeker said. Early on, they consisted largely of individuals already within the immigration pipeline trying to expedite the process. As the evacuation went on, the calls became more frantic and often more complicated.
“I would say it was frustrating. In a lot of ways it was traumatizing because I felt very responsible for those people, even though they themselves did not necessarily put that on me,” Peña said. “I always felt like it wasn’t doing enough. To this day I feel like I could’ve done more.”
Meeker said the caseworkers she interviewed for the report expressed similar sentiments.
“There’s a lot of guilt. There’s not a lot of closure for any of the caseworkers who handled this,” Meeker said.
The Afghanistan withdrawal stands out for the chaos it created in agencies and in congressional offices, Meeker found. At the outset of other emergencies, like the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Gaza, the State Department was more communicative.
But more should be done to prevent a repeat, she said, and her report lays out a series of recommendations for both the legislative and executive branches.
One is to fund the House Digital Services’ data aggregator pilot, a tool that would allow congressional offices to share anonymized casework data and spot trends. The data aggregator was a recommendation of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, and offices are currently being recruited “to participate in a scoping and development process,” according to the report.
It also calls for stronger, trauma-informed mental health resources for caseworkers and the creation of a nonpartisan Casework Liaison Office. That office would provide a physical space, with staff that could act as a “caseworker for caseworkers,” according to the report. Meeker also suggests better training of casework, legislative and committee staff to encourage information sharing.
Peña was aware at the time that staffers from the committees of jurisdiction, like Armed Services and Foreign Affairs, were getting briefings on the situation. But because her boss wasn’t on those panels and she didn’t have connections there, she was shut out.
In the absence of answers from committees or the State Department, Peña created a Microsoft Teams channel where caseworkers could ask questions and share information.
Meeker argues for more support to prevent caseworkers from being in a similar situation in the future. But she also sees the banding together that Peña describes as a kind of silver lining.
“The Afghanistan withdrawal was obviously always going to be a really difficult situation,” Meeker said. “But in the midst of this chaos, congressional caseworkers were working on a bipartisan basis, they were developing new ways to collaborate, and they did ultimately save lives through that collaboration and that effort.”
“I don’t want to call that a success story for Congress because it’s in such a tragic context. … But I think that points to how worth it it is to invest in casework,” Meeker said.