President Trump's last-minute intervention allowed an all-girl robotics team from Afghanistan to come to the United States. More important, it enabled the high schoolers to achieve what few female Afghans are able to: represent their country on an international stage.
“We felt so disappointed (when we were denied visa) because our team members had worked very hard for six months,” the 14-year-old added.
Trump's involvement drew praise from White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, who said in a tweet Saturday morning that while others talk, the president acts. But critics pointed out that selectively allowing a small group of people to come to the United States, while denying many others, is not deserving of credit.
In response to Conway's tweet, Paul Musgrave, an international relations expert who teaches political science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said, “Selective enforcement of laws and displays of 'mercy' are monarchical, not democratic, tendencies.”
He told The Washington Post that while Trump did the right thing, “making an exception here and there for people who are particularly charismatic and particularly visible” is indicative of an administration that takes action because popular opinion, not rational policy, necessitates doing so.
“Think about all the other charismatic groups that we haven't had this kind of mobilization about. Conway's tweet is in this vein of the good president saving innocent people from the government. Well, if he cares that much about these young women, what is he doing to make sure that we have a just process in place for all the many thousands of people affected by his other policies?” Musgrave said, referring to the Trump administration's travel ban, which places restrictions on people from six predominantly Muslim countries. Afghanistan is not among those countries.
Conway is traveling and is unavailable to comment, her chief of staff said.
The story of the high school girls from the city of Herat in western Afghanistan — and their uphill battle in trying to come to the United States — first attracted worldwide sympathy a few weeks ago.
They scrambled for months to build a ball-sorting robot that will compete in the FIRST Global Challenge, an international robotics competition in Washington. The team was supposed to receive equipment from the United States, but it was held up for months amid terrorism concerns. So the team members improvised and built motorized machines out of household materials, The Post reported.
To be able to come to the United States, they twice made the dangerous 500-mile journey to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul to apply for their visas.
But their applications were denied.
The hurdles — punctuated by the fact that nearly all teams, including those from countries barred under Trump's travel ban, were allowed to come — drew criticism from human rights activists and questions about whether U.S. agencies were pulling back efforts to advocate for young women in Afghanistan, The Post reported.
“Today, many Afghan women feel betrayed. The Trump administration is formulating a new Afghanistan strategy, but the talk is all about troop numbers, not school books — and certainly not girls,” Heather Barr, senior researcher for the Human Rights Watch's women's rights division, wrote last week.
On Wednesday, days before the competition was scheduled to start, Politico broke the news of Trump's intervention. The Department of Homeland Security had granted the Afghan team members and their chaperon a “parole,” which allows them a one-time, temporary entry into the country for humanitarian reasons or “significant public benefit,” The Post reported.
The reason the girls' visas were initially denied is unclear.
The State Department has cited privacy laws in declining to explain the decision. A spokesman told the Associated Press this week that visa applications are “adjudicated on a case-by-case basis.”
Critics on Twitter pointed to the administration's travel ban, saying it's the reason the team was barred in the first place and suggesting that the president shouldn't take credit for reversing the consequences of his own policies.
But the ban is not the reason the girls' visas were denied. The latest version of the ban affects Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — three of which have robotics teams that weren't blocked from coming to the United States. Another team, from Gambia, Africa, also was previously denied but has since been granted visas.
Others defended Trump and questioned why critics weren't as outraged when the African team's visas were denied.
But the ban didn't apply to them and why not same outrage when African team was denied their visa?— Rebecca Enonchong (@africatechie) July 15, 2017
Musgrave said tying the travel ban to the Afghan team's difficulty in entering the country is a misplaced criticism and is probably because of confusion over the administration's policies on Muslim countries.
Still, he maintains there's a connection — at least indirectly.
Although Afghanistan is not among the restricted countries, the obstacles the team faced in coming to the United States are “reflective of the kind of policy errors you get from the administration that imposes the travel ban,” Musgrave said. Praising the president for intervening is akin to “snatching victory from the jaws of your defeat,” he added.
“It wasn't a surprise to anybody that a team like this one coming from a country like Afghanistan would be caught up in this,” Musgrave said, adding later: “You don't get credit for cleaning this up when you foster this kind of atmosphere.”
Had the girls not been allowed to come to the United States, they would've had to participate in the competition via Skype.
They landed at Washington Dulles International Airport early Saturday. The three-day robotics competition, which involves participants from nearly 160 countries, starts Sunday.
“Seventeen years ago, this would not have been possible at all. They represent our aspirations and resilience despite having been brought up in perpetual conflict. These girls will be proving to the world and the nation that nothing will prevent us from being an equal and active member of the international community,” Afghan Ambassador Hamdullah Mohib told the AP after the girls arrived.
Sharif Hassan, Amanda Erickson, and Derek Hawkins contributed to this report.