DHS watchdog finds dept. lacked “critical data” when vetting Afghan evacuees

FAN Editor

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) lacked “critical data to properly screen, vet and inspect” Afghan evacuees after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, according to a report issued by the department’s watchdog and obtained by CBS News. 

The 34-page report by the DHS Office of the Inspector General (OIG) concluded that the department granted parole, or temporary legal permission to enter and stay in the U.S. to Afghan evacuees who “were not fully vetted” following the massive airlift by the U.S. during the chaotic last days of the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

“U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) did not always have critical data to properly screen, vet, or inspect the evacuees,” the report by DHS Inspector General Joseph Cuffari said. “We determined some information used to vet evacuees through U.S. Government databases, such as name, date of birth, identification number, and travel document data, was inaccurate, incomplete, or missing.”

Because of unreliable or insufficient data and the lack of standardized vetting policies, the watchdog found in its probe, “DHS may have admitted or paroled individuals into the United States who pose a risk to national security and the safety of local communities.” 

While the inspector general’s office said internal DHS documents showed that “dozens” of evacuated Afghans with “derogatory information” were admitted into the U.S. over the past year, the watchdog confirmed only two such cases. 

According to the report, DHS admitted an Afghan evacuee who had previously been released from prison by the Taliban. The evacuee was deported by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) after officials learned of the information roughly three weeks after the individual’s arrival in the U.S., the report said.

A second Afghan evacuee, the report said, was placed in deportation proceedings three months following his arrival, after the FBI found the individual posed “national security concerns.”

The U.S. has granted parole to about 72,550 of the more than 79,000 Afghan evacuees who arrived in the country between July 2021 and January 2022, according to DHS data.

The report found that DHS lacked important data when processing and admitting Afghan evacuees, noting the lapses in information primarily stemmed from the unique circumstances of the population at the center of the resettlement effort.

“CBP admitted or paroled evacuees who had questionable names and dates of birth partly due to cultural differences,” the report read. “It is customary in Afghanistan for some individuals to have only one name. It is not always part of the Afghan culture to record or know the exact [date of birth]. In Afghanistan, even though national legislation requires registration of children at birth, years of conflict decimated the administrative mechanisms and the social institutions supporting them.”

Officials told the inspector general’s office that some Afghan evacuees did not know their birthdates, prompting U.S. authorities to select the first day of the year they were born in as their birthday, according to the report. Interpreters or translators were often needed to gather this information, investigators said.

In its response to the draft OIG report, senior DHS leadership rejected the central premise of the report and its recommendations, noting that the U.S. government vetted and inspected all Afghan arrivals at “lily pads,” or overseas military bases, as well as at U.S. airports. 

“Upon evacuation from Afghanistan and before being cleared to travel to the United States, Afghan nationals were brought to international transit points where the U.S. government collected and reviewed biometric (i.e., facial images and fingerprints) and biographic information (e.g., name, date of birth, identity document information, etc.) on all Afghans between the ages of 14 and 79,” the department wrote in its response. 

According to the department, biometric data of evacuees was compared against “DOD DHS, and FBI repositories” while biographic information collected underwent vetting by NCTC, the FBI, and other Intelligence Community partners. 

“Additionally, all Afghans, regardless of age, had their biographic information submitted for flight manifest vetting consistent with standard vetting procedures for all other foreign populations traveling to the United States,” DHS wrote. “Only those Afghan nationals who cleared these comprehensive checks were approved for onward travel to the United States. Those who did not clear these checks remained outside the United States.”

DHS also pointed out in its response that the two instances of Afghans who raised security concerns following parole show that its inter-agency vetting system worked because the individuals were taken into custody after derogatory information surfaced. 

Last month, FBI Director Christopher Wray was pressed on the status of several dozen Afghans who were flagged as potential national security risks. Wray indicated that the FBI and its joint terrorism task forces were “actively” investigating these cases.

“We have a lot of information about where people are located,” Wray told lawmakers. “I can’t sit here right now and tell you that we know where all are located at any given time.”

After the evacuation, in November 2021, the ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, said, “The lack of appropriate screening and vetting of Afghan evacuees by this administration is reminiscent of a pre-9/11 security mindset. Remember, we were at war in Afghanistan for 20 years. We know that ISIS-K and Al Qaeda are operating in Afghanistan. These dynamics in Afghanistan should be reflected by ensuring the normal national security vetting processes are applied to all evacuees.”

The vast majority of Afghan evacuees were granted parole to enter the U.S. following the mass evacuations last summer because they had not yet completed visa or refugee processing. Parole allows officials to admit immigrants who don’t have U.S. visas or permanent status on urgent humanitarian grounds. For this reason, Afghan evacuees were not required to present passports, visas or travel documents to be paroled. 

Parole allows beneficiaries to live and work in the U.S. legally, but only on a temporary basis. But parolees do not have a path to permanent U.S. residence. As it stands, tens of thousands of Afghan evacuees who were paroled could eventually face legal limbo unless they are granted asylum. 

A bipartisan group of lawmakers in Congress recently introduced legislation that would allow those paroled into the U.S. to apply for green cards. And one argument that attracted conservative support for the proposal is that it would enable the U.S. to screen these evacuees again because of the required interviews for green cards.

DHS said in a statement Wednesday on the inspector general’s report that it “does not concur with the two recommendations made in the DHS Office of Inspector General’s (OIG) report regarding Operation Allies Welcome (OAW).” The department also strongly disputed the watchdog’s conclusions about the Afghan evacuee vetting.

“Despite the fact that, on multiple occasions, DHS provided the OIG with a comprehensive understanding of the OAW vetting and screening process, the OIG’s report does not accurately characterize that rigorous and multi-layered screening and vetting process, including the critical roles of multiple other federal agencies,” the DHS statement continued. “Further, the report does not accurately account for the fact that all individuals paroled into the United States as part of OAW are already subject to continuous vetting.”

DHS stated that Afghan and other foreign nationals alike who enter the U.S. must undergo recurrent vetting, “to ensure the continued protection of public safety and national security.”

And if derogatory information surfaces after the evacuees entered the U.S., federal law enforcement would “take appropriate action, such as opening a criminal investigation, commencing a prosecution, revoking parole, and/or placing the individual in removal proceedings.” 

The department also said it would continue working with federal partners “to continue to support the resettlement of qualifying Afghan nationals in the United States.”

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