Posted on September 8, 2021

Afghan Resettlement Raises the Question: Who Is Coming to the U.S.?

Sean Sullivan et al., Washington Post, September 5, 2021

It was 2:30 a.m. when Mustafa, finally safe in the cargo bay of an American military plane after surviving the chaos and violence of the Kabul airport, glanced around at the other weary Afghans and was struck by what he saw.

Many had minimal identification and did not appear to have worked closely with the United States as he had, serving as a translator and analyst. They were “just people,” he said, who took advantage of a disorderly evacuation to flee their turbulent country.

“Nobody knows who was the good guy and who was the bad guy getting into the plane,” said Mustafa, who asked to be identified only by his first name to protect relatives still in Afghanistan. He added, “It’s a risky thing that I believe happened.”

With tens of thousands of Afghans arriving at the end of America’s longest war, such comments from witnesses and government officials have left a question looming over the coming weeks, one that is already dividing host communities from Missoula, Mont., to Jacksonville, Fla.: Who is coming to the United States?

The emerging picture is more complicated than President Biden’s depiction of the airlift that whisked planeloads of Afghans to safety as a moral imperative to save people who helped Americans during a difficult conflict despite the risk. “We got thousands of Afghan translators and interpreters, and others who supported the United States, out,” he said recently.

A senior administration official said in an interview that the vast majority of Afghans who pass security screenings at transfer points abroad and want to enter the United States will be allowed to come. That includes a potentially sizable number who raise no red flags — but who also cannot demonstrate close ties to the U.S. effort in Afghanistan, acknowledged the official, who was not authorized to speak on the record.

Administration officials have yet to provide estimates of how many among the 50,000 or more evacuees expected to arrive in the United States will fall into this neutral category, compared with the number who clearly worked alongside Americans.


Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in an interview that he also could not specify how many of the evacuees worked with the United States. {snip}

Even as Afghan evacuees are undergoing background checks including fingerprints, photographs and, in some cases, deeper investigations by intelligence analysts or the FBI, some prominent Republicans are seizing on the fuzzy picture of who exactly left Kabul to stoke security concerns or even reject the idea of resettling Afghans in the United States.

“You can’t tell me that there are not dangerous people coming into our country,” said Rep. Matthew M. Rosendale (R-Mont.), who is trying to persuade his state’s governor not to accept any Afghan evacuees because of what he argues is a slapdash and opaque vetting process.


The relocation also threatens to open a new front in the divisive national immigration debate. In his first eight months, Biden has been attacked by Republicans over the surge of migrants at the southern border and faced a backlash from Democrats after wavering on a promise to increase the nation’s annual cap on refugees.

Already, the Afghan resettlement effort is facing potential obstacles. The State Department said Friday that it was working to identify possible forced marriages among Afghans so it could protect any victims.

And NBC News reported that officials planned to send two evacuees who arrived at a U.S. airport to Kosovo after issues arose during their security screenings. The State Department has said that evacuees who raise red flags will be sent to third countries for further review.

For now, broad bipartisan majorities support taking in Afghans who have been screened, according to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll. Yet some of the most influential voices on the right have reacted negatively; former president Donald Trump has suggested, with no evidence, that terrorists may have boarded some evacuation flights.


Still, administration officials’ description of the evacuees has shifted. For weeks, they largely characterized the Afghans they were helping leave their country as people whose history of working with Americans in Afghanistan would jeopardize their safety under the Taliban. More recently, they have acknowledged that the evacuees who fit that description make up only a subset of the nearly 125,000 who were airlifted from Kabul on U.S. military flights.

Often, they define many of the evacuees in broad terms as at-risk Afghans. “We will admit vulnerable Afghan women and girls, journalists and other constituencies that need our relief, and we are very proud to deliver it,” Mayorkas told reporters Friday.


Though many call them “refugees,” the Afghan evacuees are not entering through the formal refugee program, nor do they have access to its substantial benefits. Instead, the State Department has established a 90-day emergency program, providing less than $2,500 for each evacuee.

Biden officials have not said how many of the evacuees might qualify for a “special immigrant visa” based on their direct work with Americans in Afghanistan. The majority will arrive instead under what DHS calls “humanitarian parole,” a catchall status that lets foreigners enter the United States under exceptional circumstances.