WASHINGTON – Officials in the Biden administration have been locked into an internal debate over evacuation plans for Afghans who worked for the U.S. military, with some officials opposing the evacuation of the evacuees to U.S. territory where they would have more legal rights once arrived, two congressional assistants and three people familiar with the matter told NBC News.
“There appear to be two parties that did not reach consensus within the administration itself,” said a refugee rights activist, who was not authorized to speak officially. “They’re wasting time. These are people’s lives.”
As US troops complete their withdrawal from Afghanistan, officials in the Biden administration have struggled to craft a plan to protect Afghans who worked for the US government and now face retaliation from the Taliban. Groups of ex-combatants, refugee advocates and lawmakers have called for an urgent evacuation and accused the administration of moving too slowly, potentially putting the lives of Afghan partners at risk.
After increasing pressure from Congress and an increasingly dire situation on the ground in Afghanistan, the administration now says it will evacuate an unknown number of Afghans out of the country. President Joe Biden said Thursday the flights could begin this month. But he also suggested that most Afghans who have applied for visas under a special program will not be airlifted to US territory, but rather to third countries where their documents will be processed.
In the administration’s discussions on the matter, some Department of Homeland Security and State Department officials expressed doubts about the evacuation of Afghan partners to Guam or another U.S. territory where their visa applications would be. examined, two congressional assistants and three people familiar with the said matter.
These officials believe there are “additional legal issues you encounter when you bring them into the United States,” a congressional aide said.
If an Afghan’s visa application were denied in U.S. territory, legal experts said, the applicant could appeal the decision under U.S. immigration law, possibly opening legal proceedings that could take months to solve. In a third country, the Afghan applicant would have virtually no grounds to appeal against a rejection of a US visa application or deportation to Afghanistan, as the applicant would be subject to the laws of the third country, the officials said. experts.
Asked about the internal debate, a DHS spokesperson said, “The characterization is absolutely wrong.”
“We continue to do everything possible to help provide eligible Afghans with special immigrant visas, in support of the State Department’s program,” the spokesperson said, referring to the visa program created for Afghans who worked with American troops. “We will not compromise security by doing so. “
The State Department did not respond to a request for comment on internal discussions. The ministry said it is working to streamline the visa application process for former Afghan interpreters and is considering speeding up visas for other vulnerable Afghans who do not qualify for the special visa program in Afghanistan. ‘immigrant.
The White House National Security Council declined to comment when asked about internal discussions over the evacuation of Afghans.
A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters that an individual’s potential relocation to US territory was “a national security concern” and that the administration must follow the laws relevant and ensure that national security concerns are taken into account.
Activists and lawmakers have called for a large-scale evacuation of Afghans to Guam or other U.S. territory, citing a previous evacuation in Guam involving 6,600 Iraqi Kurds in 1996. They say transporting Afghans to a third country could entail further delays and leave the Afghans in legal limbo indefinitely.
In the case of the Kurdish evacuation, the operation was staged within days and less than one percent of applicants had their visa applications refused, according to Chris Purdy of the Veterans for American Ideals program at Human Rights First .
In remarks on the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, President Biden said Thursday his administration recognizes the importance of protecting Afghans who have served as interpreters, drivers or other jobs for US troops, and that the United States would evacuate an unknown number from Afghanistan.
“There is a home for you in the United States, if you want it, and we’ll be by your side just as you’ve stood with us,” Biden said.
But the president also appeared to rule out sending most of the Afghan candidates to US territory, saying “the law does not allow” this option but the administration wants Congress to change the law.
Administration officials later said applicants for the special immigrant visa program, which was put in place for Afghan and Iraqi interpreters, could not legally be sent to the United States until their visas were issued. be approved. They left open the possibility that a smaller number of Afghans who were not eligible for the SIV program but who were performing related work in the United States could be brought into the United States under the provisions of the US Act. “Humanitarian parole”.
Lawyers for refugee organizations took issue with the president’s remarks and expressed dismay that the administration appeared to want to take most of the evacuated Afghans to third countries. They said US law includes provisions for Afghans to travel directly to US territory to have their visa applications reviewed, under humanitarian parole provisions.
Biden also said about 2,500 visas had been issued to former Afghan interpreters, and less than half of them had decided to leave the country.
Refugee advocates, however, have said that when visas are granted, the applicant usually has to wait months for a flight to be booked by international refugee organizations, as they do not have the funds to purchase their own flight. commercial earlier.
It is still unclear which third countries would agree to accept the Afghan evacuees, but U.S. officials were discussing with the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait about hosting some of the Afghan evacuees, two defense officials told NBC News.
The administration also had to consider the human rights records of countries accepting Afghans, the officials added. US officials have previously explored the possibility of transporting some of the Afghan evacuees to Central Asian countries bordering Afghanistan that have faced human rights criticism, according to a current US official, three assistants. Congress and refugee advocates.
Refugee and immigration rights groups criticized the administration for not initiating the evacuation earlier and said the rationale for avoiding flights to U.S. territory was unfounded because Afghans had already been selected as interpreters for American troops and diplomats.
“Why are these concerns being raised now, years after these allies served our mission? Our Afghan allies are at risk, not risk factors,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.
“It is time for the delays to end and for the administration to take action to keep our promise and protect our allies.”
Administration officials were also discussing the pool of Afghans to be evacuated, the decision depending in part on the status of Afghan visa applications.
The State Department said that out of about 18,000 applications for the SIV program, about 9,000 were at an advanced stage of the application process, while the rest had not yet completed the necessary forms and had simply expressed interest in the program.
Refugee advocates and ex-combatant groups questioned this assessment and said that in many cases Afghans completed the paperwork but faced red tape and delays of months or years. They said the US program was plagued by relentless bureaucratic delays and that Afghans should not pay the price for the program’s shortcomings.
“It is misleading of the government to claim that half of all applicants currently in the process are ineligible for a visa or have simply ‘expressed an interest’ or ‘sent an email’,” said Adam Bates, policy advisor for the International Refugee Assistance Project. .
“Many of them were prevented from taking the next step in the process due to government delays or were wrongly refused and had to resubmit their applications. No one should be left behind because the government was too slow to process their requests, ”Bates said. mentionned.
A federal court ruled in 2019 that the U.S. government failed to comply with a law requiring it to process SIV requests within nine months.
According to No One Left Behind, a non-profit organization founded by veterans to help Afghan interpreters obtain visas, the Taliban have killed several hundred Afghans and their families for their association with the United States since. 2014.