- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 17, 2021

The Biden administration is rushing to build an immigration system that will decide who gets to stay in the U.S. after promising to airlift tens of thousands of Afghan citizens out of their home country.

But there were more questions than answers Tuesday. Officials were unable to say how many Afghans they thought would qualify for evacuation, how many they could airlift out of the country over the two weeks before the full withdrawal of U.S. troops and what would happen to the Afghans upon arrival to America.

Neither the Department of Homeland Security nor the State Department would say whether the Afghans would be held in custody until their cases are decided or released into communities, and neither department would say whether those who lose their cases for special visas will be deported.

It’s a serious risk.

According to the latest data from the two departments, the government denied 84% of Afghan applications for the Special Immigrant Visa that were decided during the first three months of the year. The visa is designed to help translators, guides and others who assisted the U.S. war and nation-building efforts.

“The SIV program is in chaos, just like the rest of the Biden administration‘s handling of the Afghanistan withdrawal,” said Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies. “Their plan to just bring people into the United States, plop them onto active military bases and sort it all out later is a terrible one. Anyone can see that.”

She said the visa program was already rife with fraud when it was being run normally, with applications filed from Afghanistan and a full embassy staff in the country that was able to check applicants’ stories. Trying to do that from the U.S., with no embassy staff in Afghanistan and without a cooperative government in place, becomes almost impossible, experts said.

Yet the effort is underway.

The Biden administration said it has carved out space at three military bases to house and process about 22,000 people. It is also pleading with other countries to take in fleeing Afghans, at least temporarily.

In addition to the Special Immigrant Visa for those who directly assisted the U.S., the State Department has designated other Afghans as priorities for refugee resettlement.

The State Department wouldn’t talk numbers Tuesday. It rebuffed inquiries about how many people deserve evacuation or how many the U.S. government can process and evacuate. But the department signaled optimism about what it can do.

“We are going to do and we are doing as much as we can for as long as we can,” said department spokesman Ned Price.

Mr. Price said the U.S. is expanding its aperture for people it wants to fly out to include not just Afghans who assisted America’s war and nation-building efforts but also those who helped media outlets or worked with nongovernmental organizations to build their country’s civil society.

He was asked repeatedly whether being a woman or girl was enough to qualify for evacuation, given the Taliban’s record. Mr. Price did not give a direct answer.

The State Department takes the lead on Special Immigrant Visas and refugee processing, though the Department of Homeland Security plays a role from its legal immigration agency, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

USCIS sent out pleas this week for employees to volunteer to deploy to the military bases where Afghans will be arriving so they can help process and judge applications.

Deployments begin Wednesday and can last up to 60 days, according to one email request reviewed by The Washington Times. Tasks include performing background checks, collecting and ruling on applications, checking fingerprints and issuing work permits.

Homeland Security said it also has dedicated some employees from Customs and Border Protection to help process applications.

USCIS is already strained with a massive backlog of cases, and CBP is dealing with the unprecedented surge of illegal immigration at the border. Experts said taking staff away from those missions will hurt the agencies down the road.

Ms. Vaughan also said state and local governments will end up bearing the costs of support services, education and health care.

“Though the numbers seem small relative to illegal immigration and other legal admissions programs, the security risks, processing logistics and population needs are large and will be a big headache for everyone involved for years to come,” she said.

RJ Hauman, head of government relations at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said he expects immigrant rights groups to argue strenuously that Afghans should be released when they arrive and await the outcomes of their cases while living in American communities.

“This is a national security disaster waiting to happen,” he said.

Even more troubling, he said, is the push to expand the scope of those the U.S. will evacuate. What started as a call to get America’s allies, those who assisted the U.S. war and nation-building efforts, has quickly become a demand to airlift Afghan journalists, human rights activists, academics and in some cases any woman or girl who faces a rougher life under the Taliban.

Mr. Hauman said that would be a “colossal mistake,” particularly given how the Biden administration has handled immigration issues during the first seven months of its tenure.

“Refugee flows are best handled in countries closer to the conflict,” he said. “We need to create workable regional solutions and only resettle some Afghans as a last resort within reasonable numerical limits and in adherence to current law.”

The government is tightlipped about what screening of Special Immigrant Visa applicants looks like, but officials insist it is robust.

The track record is less convincing.

Analysts said the risk of a terrorist slipping through the system is not hypothetical. Refugees from Middle Eastern countries have been charged with terrorism offenses over the past decade, including the 2019 arrest of a Syrian refugee accused of plotting to bomb a Pittsburgh church.

State Department officials have acknowledged the national security concerns with the Special Immigrant Visa program but say they are taking steps to minimize the risks.

Among Iraqi refugees, including people who assisted the U.S. war effort, authorities suspected at least 4,000 filed bogus applications, Reuters reported this year. Officials were reexamining more than 104,000 other cases. 

The Biden administration suspended the Iraqi preference program after federal investigators announced they had broken up a fraud ring that had stolen hundreds of applicants’ files.

Two of the people implicated were foreigners who worked for USCIS. They were apparently culling the files to see what sorts of applications were approved and which ones were rejected and then used that information to help others craft their applications.

Special Immigrant Visa denial rates shot up for Afghans in the wake of that investigation.

From January through March, the U.S. government issued 137 visas to principal applicants. It denied 728 principal applications, amounting to an 84% rejection rate.

Those who are denied because their service isn’t deemed to meet the bar for a Special Immigrant Visa can appeal. The State Department said 713 appeals were filed during those three months, and 601 were denied.

A State Department spokesperson said Tuesday that those who lose their appeals can reapply. Still, the rejection rate suggests the vast majority of people applying for the Special Immigrant Visa don’t qualify.

Ms. Vaughan said she expects a “get to yes” mentality will prevail and most applications will be rubber-stamped. Some will be delayed, she said, but those will end up in court battles and it will be difficult to find places to send those who lose their cases.

“This is going to be a festering problem for years,” she said.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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