In 1886, when Geronimo went “off the reservation” for the third time, the US military’s only hope of finding him was to use friendly Apache scouts. For most of the year, the US military, with 5,000 white soldiers and dozens of Apache trackers, chased Geronimo’s small band of 38 men, women, and children through the rugged mountains of Mexico.
When Geronimo finally surrendered, he and his band were all packed on a train and sent to a prison in Florida. The children were sent to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, where a third of them died of tuberculosis. They were considered future terrorists. As Miles said, “the boys of today will become the Geronimos of a few years hence.” The Apache scouts were rewarded with the same fate— fourteen of them were also shipped off to prison in Florida. Also sent to Florida were hundreds of other Chiricahua Apache that never even left the reservation.
In 2011, when Osama bin Laden was hiding in similarly remote country, the US military gave him the code name Geronimo, used Apache helicopters, and eventually found and killed him after ten years of searching.
There are deeper parallels. Essential to the US military effort in Afghanistan were —and still are— thousands of Afghan translators, engineers, and other professionals assisting US troops on a daily basis. Like the Apache scouts, most of them face the same risks on the job as American soldiers. Some have been killed in combat or by roadside bombs. More significantly, in a land where the Taliban controls most of the countryside, all their neighbors know who they are working for. They and their families are constantly at risk because they work for the Americans. In this way, they are sacrificing more, and putting more at risk, than US troops.
Recognizing this, in 2008 the US government created the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program, offering these Afghan allies the chance to immigrate to the US with a permanent green card and work permit. That may sound like a golden opportunity for them, but they are only escaping their country because they have to. In most cases, they are leaving behind parents and other relatives, with little hope of ever returning. They are only allowed to bring their own children. When they get here, the US doesn’t actually do a whole lot for them. They get a one time stipend of about $900 per family member, most of which quickly goes to first and last months’ rent and a cleaning deposit for an over-crowded apartment. Imagine a family of eight in a small two-bedroom apartment where the a/c and furnace don’t work. I know. I’ve spent the past nine months befriending one such family. They get food stamps for six months, and enrolled in Medicare. They are on their own for transportation and a job and everything else. I was shocked to learn they are also obligated to pay back the US government the cost of their airfare from Afghanistan, which can total over $10,000 for a family. Most significantly, their engineering degrees and professional certifications aren’t valid in the US. So men that supervised the construction of military bases for US troops in Kabul are now driving Uber in Sacramento.
They are the lucky ones. The SIV application process, with includes extensive background checks because they may be future terrorists, is so bogged down that there are now over 20,000 waiting to be processed in Afghanistan. They are in line for just 4,000 visas; only about half actually get processed in a given year. The wait takes years. Every few months, Afghan refugee social media channels in the US are filled with the news of another colleague assassinated on the streets of Kabul or Ghazni. Since the election of Trump, the number of SIVs processed has slowed dramatically. In 2016, resettlement organizations in Sacramento, one of the top destinations for SIV refugees, worked with multiple new families arriving each week. Last year, new arrivals slowed to less than one a month.
One-hundred thirty years after the Apache scouts were sent to prison, helping the US military fight your own people is still a thankless task. The only “thank you for your service” that Afghans get is to be sent thousands of miles from their home with little support, just like the Apache scouts.