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Biden names former Delaware governor Jack Markell to serve as point person on Afghan resettlement in the United States

Jack Markell, then governor of Delaware, listens during a session of the National Governors Association meeting in August 2013. (Morry Gash/AP)

President Biden has tapped a former governor of his home state, Jack Markell, to temporarily serve as his point person on resettling Afghan evacuees in the United States, White House officials said Friday.

Markell, 60, who served as Delaware’s governor from 2009 to 2017, is a former chair of the National Governors Association and a close adviser to the president. He will be the White House coordinator of what the administration is calling “Operation Allies Welcome,” and he is expected to start next week and stay through the end of the calendar year.

Markell will team up with domestic and national security policy advisers as well as Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, whose agency is leading the operational effort to vet and resettle evacuees. The process will also involve state and local governments, the business sector, religious institutions and nonprofit organizations to ensure the resettlement runs smoothly, officials said.

“There is no one I trust more than Jack Markell for this next critical phase of Operation Allies Welcome as we welcome Afghan evacuees to America,” Biden said in a statement.

Markell was unavailable for an interview Friday but issued a statement saying he was honored to work on resettlement.

“Welcoming these families is in the best traditions of our country, and we are grateful to see the outpouring of support from people across this country who are ready to help resettle vulnerable Afghans and welcome them to their new homes,” Markell said.

Mayorkas praised Markell and called the resettlement plan “an all-of-government effort.”

“DHS looks forward to working closely with Governor Markell to advance Operation Allies Welcome’s noble mission to resettle vulnerable Afghans in the United States,” Mayorkas said.

Questions hang over diplomatic mission as next phase of U.S. relationship with Afghanistan begins

Mayorkas told reporters Friday that more than 40,000 evacuees have arrived to the United States so far, of whom 13 percent are U.S. citizens and 8 percent lawful permanent residents. The remaining 79 percent are Special Immigrant Visa holders and applicants, as well as Afghans who have assisted the United States and members of vulnerable groups, he said.

“We have evacuated, and we will admit to the United States, individuals other than U.S. citizens, legal permanent residents and Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) holders,” Mayorkas said. “For example, we will admit into the United States, after the screening and vetting is completed and we are assured there is no derogatory information that creates a risk to the American public … individuals who are in the application process for a Special Immigrant Visas but who have not received those visas. We will admit individuals who worked for our embassy. We will admit vulnerable Afghan women and girls, journalists, and others constituencies that need our relief, and we are very proud to deliver it.”

According to Air Force Gen. Glen D. VanHerck, the commander of Northern Command, more than 25,600 Afghan evacuees are currently being housed at eight military installations that were specially commissioned for the purpose. VanHerck in a briefing Friday estimated that about a thousand — most of whom came through Fort Lee in Virginia — had already been processed through such facilities, where Afghans have been undergoing medical screenings and working to complete their paperwork to petition to stay in the United States.

He noted that “a couple” of unaccompanied children had also arrived as part of the evacuation, and had been transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Though VanHerck deferred to DHS for the official statistics, he told reporters Friday that his understanding was that “the vast majority” of the Afghans in the care of the military “are not SIVs at this time; they are asylum seekers.”

That raises new questions about the way in which officials in Kabul determined which Afghans were able to enter Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, from which evacuations were staged in the second half of August. Third party groups working to assist evacuations have estimated that many thousands of SIV holders — and those who were far along in the process of applying for such status — were left behind.

Administration officials have also said they are committed to helping Afghan allies who remain in Afghanistan and want to get out.

The Biden administration has assigned “case management teams” to each of the U.S. citizens who remains in Afghanistan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Friday. Speaking to reporters at the State Department, Blinken said most of those who remain are dual citizens with extended family in the country.

“So it’s no surprise that deciding whether or not to leave the place they call home is a wrenching decision,” he said.

Blinken said the State Department was also in touch with at-risk Afghans and was undertaking efforts to attempt to aid them as well.

Blinken is scheduled to travel over Labor Day weekend to Germany and Qatar, where he will thank local leaders for allowing U.S. military bases to be used as transit hubs for evacuated Afghans. He will also meet with Afghans whose visa applications are being processed.

Mayorkas said that the Biden administration expects to receive “more than 50,000” evacuees, but he did not respond to questions about the number the government intends to resettle and who are currently at transit sites overseas. Afghans who do not clear a “multi-layered” vetting process will not be allowed to travel to the United States, and the U.S. will seek to resettle them in third countries, he said.

The military has pledged to build capacity to house up to 50,000 Afghans while they are being processed.

“I’m building eight small cities, we’re gonna have challenges, just like you do across the nation in various locations,” VanHerck said. “I’m comfortable and confident that we have processes in place to continue to address any of these challenges moving forward.”

Missy Ryan contributed to this report.