The Department of Homeland Security flagged 44 Afghan evacuees as potential national security risks during the past two weeks as the government screened tens of thousands for resettlement in the United States, according to DHS vetting records reviewed by The Washington Post.
Another 15 evacuees who were considered security concerns have been turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), sent back to transit sites in Europe or the Middle East, or in some cases approved for release after additional review. There are 16 Afghans on the DHS lists who have not been cleared to travel and remain overseas at the transit sites U.S. officials call “lily pads.”
The Biden administration said this week it expects to resettle 95,000 Afghans in the United States, asking Congress for $6.4 billion in emergency funding to support the effort. Polls show broad support for resettlement, but GOP lawmakers and other critics of the administration have accused the Biden administration of cutting corners with the vetting process.
Biden officials say the vetting is rigorous and multifaceted, drawing on military, intelligence, law enforcement, and counterterrorism agencies and their databases. Evacuees who aren’t approved will not be released into the United States.
The DHS lists show several Afghans were flagged for suspected associations with terrorists, or whose phones and electronic devices contained information that raised concern among the CBP officers who screen them upon arrival in the United States. CBP and its National Targeting Center are checking Afghan passengers as they land at the two designated arrival sites, Dulles International Airport in Virginia and Philadelphia International Airport.
The Biden administration said Friday it has temporarily halted the resettlement flights under CDC orders after four measles cases were detected among Afghan evacuees. Officials have been vaccinating the evacuees once they arrive on U.S. soil, and they are now looking at administering immunizations at overseas transit sites as an additional condition for clearance to travel.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has repeatedly declined to say how many Afghans have been blocked from traveling or failed to clear the vetting process, but he characterized the number as “extraordinarily de minimis” during a briefing with reporters Wednesday, using the legal term for an insignificant quantity.
Instances in which evacuees have been flagged for additional checks or denied admission to the United States are “an example of a multilayered screening process working,” he said. DHS has deployed 400 officers, agents and other personnel to collect evacuees’ biometric and biographical information and oversee the vetting process at transit sites in Europe and the Middle East.
In some case, additional information comes to the attention of CBP officers and other officials while the person is in transit or upon inspection in the United States, Mayorkas said. That often occurs when CBP asks arriving passengers to hand over their unlocked phones. Concerns raised during that process lead to additional reviews, and don’t automatically disqualify someone, he said.
“The information can be resolved to our satisfaction such that it proves not to be truly derogatory information — only information that raises a question,” he said. “If we are assured it is not in fact derogatory information that is of concern to us, we will admit the individual.”
In addition to the 44 who raised security concerns, two Afghan nationals who were previously deported and returned as evacuees have been transferred to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities after landing in the United States, according to two DHS officials.
Both were deported after felony convictions: one for a 2010 sexual assault and the other for an armed robbery in 2011, according to one official who was not authorized to discuss the criminal records. The two individuals are currently in ICE custody in Virginia.
A third Afghan national, Muhamed Haroon Bahaduri, 25, is also facing deportation and has been charged with grand larceny by Virginia State Police for a Sept. 8 incident at Fort Pickett, an aging Army National Guard base where thousands of evacuees are being temporarily housed.
Bahaduri got into a vehicle that was parked on the base Wednesday and was stopped after driving around, according to Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller. There was no crash nor any injuries, she said.
ICE officials have placed a detainer on Bahaduri, the first step toward initiating deportation proceedings. About a dozen Afghans flagged as security risks and their family members have withdrawn their applications for admission and have been returned to transit sites or are awaiting flights.
Mayorkas said this week that evacuees who are ordered deported or who withdrew their applications to enter the United States will not be returned to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. “We will endeavor to remove that individual to a third country,” he said.
A group of Republican lawmakers sent a letter to President Biden this week alleging his administration was conducting “rushed and incomplete vetting” of Afghan evacuees. They questioned the ability of U.S. screeners to access databases in Afghanistan that would provide reliable information.
“Various officials of this administration have stated that Afghans will receive serious vetting and biometric and biographic security screenings from law enforcement and intelligence officials in the United States,” the lawmakers wrote. “While we do not dispute that some level of screening is occurring, screening is only as good and comprehensive as the information within the databases that are checked.”
The Biden administration has not said what Afghan records and databases it may have access to, but observers say the United States has gathered a significant amount of intelligence information during a 20-year military presence.
Stewart Baker, a counterterrorism expert who was a top policy adviser at DHS under President George W. Bush, said the Afghan vetting process is “uncharted territory” for U.S. security agencies because it’s happening partly after evacuees have arrived.
“DHS is doing what they can to vet after the fact, but the people who are here are probably not leaving even if they fail the vetting process,” Baker said.
“It’s not clear what countries will take those who we flag as a security concern,” he added. “And what about the ones who aren’t cleared to travel? Will these countries send them out into their populations if we don’t admit them to come here?”
In recent weeks, as many as 5,000 Afghans per day have arrived outside D.C. at Dulles, which has received the majority of the evacuees. DHS is using a United Airlines hangar as an arrival hall for flagged passengers, some of whom face long waits to clear CBP security checks. Relief organizations are providing meals, clothing and other provisions to the families, most of whom will be temporarily housed at eight military bases while undergoing medical checks and preparing for the transition to life in the United States.
Of the 60,000 evacuees who have arrived so far, 11 percent are U.S. citizens and 6 percent are legal permanent residents, according to DHS. The remaining 83 percent are considered “at-risk Afghans” who either qualify for special immigrant visas as a result of their work for the U.S. government, or are part of a much larger number who will arrive with a provisional immigration status known as “humanitarian parole.”
They will receive work authorization, and their parole status will be valid for two years, but the White House asked Congress this week for a bill allowing the evacuees to receive benefits similar to those provided through the U.S. refugee program, as well as a chance to apply for legal permanent residency status after one year.