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Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas pledged that Afghan evacuees whose backgrounds raise red flags won’t be permitted to enter the country, but provided little detail on their fate.
“We are working with our international allies to address the disposition of those individuals,” Mayorkas told a press briefing Friday when asked if such evacuees would be kept in third countries.
Mayorkas provided an update on the agency’s leading role in what the Biden administration has dubbed Operation Allies Welcome. His remarks come as DHS—which is coordinating the interagency resettlement process—is increasingly pushing back on criticism from some Republican lawmakers that the vetting process isn’t robust enough.
Almost 400 Department of Homeland Security workers are stationed abroad to help vet and process Afghan evacuees, and more U.S.-based personnel are helping them relocate—a mission that’s straining agency resources but invigorating the workforce, Mayorkas said.
“Our resources are indeed stressed but what we already have been able to accomplish in Operation Allies Welcome and what we will accomplish in achieving this effort speaks to the extraordinary talent & dedication of the workforce,” Mayorkas said.
The deployment of 400 employees from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Coast Guard, the Transportation Security Administration, and other agencies has increased from the roughly 300 personnel DHS officials estimated earlier this week.
They’re working in Europe and the Middle East to conduct biometric and biographic vetting before allowing evacuees to board flights to the U.S. DHS and the Defense Department shipped hundreds of biometric screening machines to the hubs, as one of many layers of security screening.
Additional DHS personnel from CBP and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services are working on military bases in the U.S. to shelter and process many evacuees upon their arrival, said Robert Fenton, a longtime Federal Emergency Management Agency leader tapped as the senior response official for the interagency effort to resettle Afghan nationals.
Republicans on Capitol Hill have cast doubt on the vetting process, questioning whether the rushed evacuation undermined efforts to screen Afghans fully for potential national security threats.
On Thursday, 26 GOP senators sought details on how the U.S. is verifying people’s identities before bringing them to the U.S. At least one evacuee has been held at a processing site in Europe as a possible threat.
The U.S. has evacuated some 120,000 people from Afghanistan and moved 40,000 of those to the U.S. in recent weeks, Mayorkas said. Some are American citizens and lawful permanent residents, but the majority have Special Immigrant Visas for directly supporting U.S. forces, or are other vulnerable Afghans.
Mayorkas said he’s met with dozens of community organizations to get recommendations on cultural competency and providing evacuees access to counsel and trauma counseling.
The secretary added that he hasn’t met directly with Afghan nationals because he wants to be respectful of the trauma they’ve faced, but he’s visited processing sites in Virginia to observe and meet with U.S. workers.
“That is the greatest takeaway of this: the honor of being a part of Operation Allies Welcome, of reestablishing our leadership in the world as a place of refuge,” he said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Ellen M. Gilmer in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org