(Adds Grassley letter in sixth paragraph.)
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Lawmakers and advocates are urging the Biden administration to ensure the safe resettlement of tens of thousands of Afghan nationals after U.S. forces completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan this week.
The Department of Homeland Security is leading the effort—screening for national security risks, guiding evacuees through the federal immigration system, and connecting with nonprofits that will help them make the U.S. home.
“Our military and our entire nation owe these Afghans a debt of gratitude, and we have a moral obligation to not only get them to safety, but to welcome them here and make them feel at home,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said in a statement Monday.
Nonprofits are gearing up for years of resettlement work. They’re calling on the federal government to ease bureaucratic hurdles for evacuees, and to aggressively pursue diplomatic options to evacuate those still stuck in Afghanistan.
The push to bring Afghan allies to safety comes amid a swell of criticism from across the political spectrum about the Biden administration’s chaotic exit from the 20-year war in Afghanistan. The Taliban swiftly seized control of the country, and the U.S. has hurriedly evacuated more than 100,000 people since Aug. 14.
Critics of the Biden administration say the rushed effort undermines assurances that evacuees destined for the U.S. have been thoroughly vetted. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) on Tuesday demanded answers from the heads of DHS, the Pentagon, and the State Department on the vetting process and what happens to evacuees who raise red flags.
“It’s a balance between, yes, we want to do right by those who either met the eligibility requirements for a Special Immigrant Visa or help bona fide refugees, but we certainly don’t want to be taking in national security threats or public safety threats,” said Heritage Foundation fellow Lora Ries, a DHS official during the George W. Bush and Trump administrations.
The White House, DHS officials, and others in the administration have sought to dispel concerns by sharing more information about the vetting process in recent days.
DHS is focused on communicating clearly to the American public that it’s seeking to make the vetting more efficient without cutting corners, a spokesperson told Bloomberg Government on Monday.
The agency is coordinating resettlement work that crosses multiple other departments including State and Defense. Around 300 DHS personnel from U.S. immigration agencies, the Transportation Security Administration, and the Coast Guard are working at overseas sites in the Middle East and Europe, where many evacuees are being processed and vetted before traveling to the U.S.
Those permitted to fly to the U.S. fall into several categories: legal permanent residents, visa holders, visa applicants, and vulnerable people who haven’t started any visa application. All will receive Covid-19 testing and access to vaccinations, according to a DHS spokesperson.
Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas is using humanitarian parole authority to allow non-visa holders who’ve cleared a vetting to stay in the U.S. while they pursue long-term protections. Many will go to processing sites at military installations where immigration officials can help with applications for visas or other protections.
Robert Fenton, a longtime regional head for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has been tapped as the government’s senior response official, coordinating across agencies for immigration processing, Covid-19 testing, and resettlement support for new arrivals.
Advocates are calling on the administration to smooth the vetting and screening for special immigrant visas available to translators and others who worked closely with U.S. forces.
“There are not security vulnerabilities; what there are are bureaucratic inefficiencies in the security process—which mostly have to do with interagency coordination and which databases are used—that has slowed the process down to a crawl at various points in the last decade,” Michael Breen, CEO and president of the advocacy group Human Rights First, said during a press call Tuesday.
“That may slow our continuing efforts going forward unless there’s real leadership from the White House to clear that up,” he added.
‘Let’s Deal With Facts’
Efforts to evacuate Afghan nationals who aided the U.S. in the war have broad support from both Democrats and Republicans. Yet some on the right have raised questions about whether the Biden administration can properly vet all evacuees rushed out of Afghanistan—especially those who hadn’t applied for SIVs.
House Oversight ranking member James Comer (R-Ky.) likewise argued last week that terrorists and other bad actors are poised to exploit the system to gain access to the U.S.
“In the chaotic situation left in the wake of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, we are particularly concerned that terrorists and others who wish to harm the United States may seek to infiltrate the country disguised as those who provided assistance to coalition forces in Afghanistan,” he said in a letter to Mayorkas and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Without a physical presence in Afghanistan, the U.S. will have a tougher time reviewing the backgrounds of any evacuees whose biometric or biographic checks raise red flags in national security databases, said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that favors tighter immigration controls.
Elizabeth Neumann, a former DHS counterterrorism official, wrote a recent opinion piece that assessed the Biden administration’s vetting process as thorough and criticized “fearmongering” about Afghan evacuees.
“We can have a rational conversation and debate policy, but let’s not make it about race, ethnicity, or religion,” she said in an interview Monday. “Let’s deal with facts. And the facts are, if they’re allowed to come to this country, then they have passed a thorough background check that is in line with our highest national security measures.”
With thousands of Afghan nationals moving through screening and vetting, the next challenge for the U.S. is resettlement, Neumann said.
“I’m already seeing some of the political fights over what our obligation is to people who came here who weren’t SIV-eligible,” she said. “That’s probably the biggest thing that hasn’t been answered in this whole process—the government has not come out and said, here is how we’re going to care for resettling these refugees .”
To contact the reporter on this story: Ellen M. Gilmer in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org