US Congress demands answers on Afghan evacuees

Republicans and Democrats alike are demanding more information from the Biden administration on resettlement of vulnerable Afghans

Families relocated from Kabul, Afghanistan, walk through the terminal before boarding a bus after arriving at Washington Dulles International Airport. AP
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Members of Congress on Tuesday pushed several Biden administration officials on their failure to provide key information on the resettlement of Afghan evacuees in the US during a pair of hearings on Capitol Hill.

“I’m very frustrated right now,” Republican Joni Ernst told The National after a closed-door Senate briefing with Pentagon officials.

“They can’t answer questions for us — things that our American people should know, things that we should know as Congress. How many families do we have evacuated? How many women, children do we have evacuated? Who’s been evacuated? They can’t answer any of that.”

The White House has said it has flown more than 100,000 Afghans out of Kabul since August 14, the eve of the Taliban takeover.

Many evacuees are stationed in third-party countries such as Qatar and Kosovo, and the Biden administration has said that 37,500 of those evacuees are on track to be processed for entry to the US.

But the fate of the additional 62,500 Afghan evacuees remains unclear.

Some Republicans have also started to complain about the lack of information they have received regarding security vetting procedures.

Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas publicly apologised for his department’s failure to provide Congress with updated information on Afghan evacuees awaiting resettlement in the US and vowed to rectify the issue when testifying in another hearing on Tuesday.

“You’re entitled to that information,” Mr Mayorkas told Rob Portman, the top Republican on the Senate Homeland Security Committee.

“We do have a robust screening and vetting process in addition to expertise both in the transit countries and here domestically to ensure the safety and security of the American people,” said Mr Mayorkas.

Although President Joe Biden's administration has yet to provide a specific numerical breakdown, the pool of evacuees includes Afghans who are not US citizens or permanent residents as well as Afghans who hold Special Immigrant Visas for assisting the American military.

Mr Mayorkas said the remaining evacuees include Afghans who were employed locally by the US, those who were unable to complete their Special Immigrant Visa applications before the evacuation and others who qualify for refugee status.

“It’s a very mixed population and we screen and vet that remaining group as we screen and vet all,” Mr Mayorkas said.

Afghan couple have heartwarming reunion in the US

Afghan couple have heartwarming reunion in the US

The secretary also endorsed bipartisan legislation in the House of Representatives that would give all Afghan evacuees arriving in the US the same resettlement benefits that refugees receive.

Members of Congress have expressed frustration over the lack of inter-agency co-ordination on several Afghanistan-related issues, including evacuees.

Democrat Tim Kaine called the classified hearing “productive” but said Defence Department officials frequently punted basic questions to the Department of Homeland Security and State Department — something he hopes they will rectify before returning to Congress next week for a public hearing.

“It can be a little frustrating,” said Mr Kaine.

“The witnesses were helpful in cueing up the topic for next week and I would encourage them just to make sure this military panel can answer some basic questions.”

James Inhofe, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the closed-door briefing was “very thorough” but projected that members would express several “differences of opinions” at next week’s public hearing.

Some House Republicans had already opposed bipartisan legislation in July to expedite Special Immigrant Visa processing for Afghans who assisted the US military, mirroring the pushback against immigration that dominated the party under former president Donald Trump.

Mr Trump himself has sent mixed messages regarding Afghan evacuee resettlement.

Although Mr Trump faulted Mr Biden in August for withdrawing troops before flying out all Afghans who had helped the American military, he said that the US had flown “terrorists” out of Kabul during an interview with Fox News last week — offering zero evidence to corroborate his claim.

Still, an NPR/Ipsos poll released last week found that about three quarters of Americans support resettling Afghans who supported the US military, including 73 per cent of Republicans.

And Ms Ernst said that her home state of Iowa should take in more Afghan evacuees in an interview with The Des Moines Register last month.

Security vetting issues aside, Mr Kaine said he had noticed some “health screening issues” during recent trips he made to visit Afghan evacuees awaiting processing in Dulles and Fort Lee in Virginia.

“Measles has come up in a couple of cases,” Mr Kaine told The National. “Everybody has to get screened for [tuberculosis] because [tuberculosis] is a pretty significant problem in Afghanistan.”

Afghan evacuees arriving in the US are also receiving Covid tests and vaccines.

“The Afghan arrivals have a much lower Covid exposure rate than the American population right now. So, they’re actually coming into a place when, in general, they’re less affected by the populations that they’re going to,” Mr Kaine said.

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Updated: September 21, 2021, 8:36 PM