He Worked for the U.S. in Afghanistan. He’s Still Waiting to Come to the U.S.

POLITICO first contacted the State Department officials overseeing relocation efforts at Camp As Sayliyah regarding the Nasiri family’s case in March. The officials agreed to an interview in May, on the condition that it be an off-the-record briefing followed by answers to general questions on background, without specific attribution. Throughout, the official declined to comment on the Nasiri case specifically, citing privacy and security protocols.

A copy of the written responses the officials referred to during the interview were supplied upon request on May 24. In it, the official wrote: “There are many reasons a case may be delayed, from medical to administrative processing. As we do not separate families, when one individual is delayed, the entire case becomes delayed.”

The official added that every Afghan undergoes a “rigorous and multi-layered” vetting process that involves biometric and biographic verification by multiple national security, homeland security, counterterrorism and intelligence agencies. “While we continue to improve our system for relocating and resettling Afghan allies in the United States, what won’t change is our commitment to keeping the United States safe,” the official wrote.

In June, POLITICO sent successive rounds of written follow-up questions. We received the State Department’s responses in August; the official declined to provide the number of Afghans processed at Camp As Sayliyah, again citing “privacy and security reasons.” The official added that applicants for refugee resettlement who are denied are free to “engage a lawyer at their own expense” and appeal in the case of SIV or request a review in the case of a refugee denial.

In the early, chaotic days of the evacuation, when the U.S. scrambled to get people out of Afghanistan, vetting agencies exhibited lapses in data-gathering and sharing, which right wing groups led by former President Donald Trump’s immigration adviser Stephen Miller seized on and criticized at the time. Since then, questions about the appropriate amount of vetting have dominated debates about Afghan relocation in Congress. Some, like Staffeiri of AWA, which advocates for SIV applicants, say that current security vetting protocols are meant to help protect the Afghans themselves from their persecutors — even though the bureaucrats who do the vetting sometimes end up making mistakes in the implementation.

The actual risk posed by refugees is miniscule. According to a 2019 report by the Cato Institute, a person living in the U.S. faces a 1 in 3.9 billion chance of being killed by a refugee per year, compared to, say, 1 in 4.08 million by someone holding a tourist visa.

But critics argue the U.S. government’s past record on whom it lets in is riddled with inconsistencies — even among Afghans. Applicants trusted with sensitive information in their jobs for the Defense and State Departments, such as Najeeb himself, who are then screened again pre-evacuation, can later “disappear into the SIV security for extended periods of time (or forever),” Bates says.

Meanwhile, in 2022, the Intercept also reported on the case of Hayanuddin Afghan, a former member of a CIA-backed militia, who was allowed to resettle in Philadelphia despite reports that his anti-Taliban group targeted civilians. (In fact, war criminals dating back to the World Wars were relocated to the U.S. — and even had their records scrubbed — if they agreed to provide the U.S. with intelligence.)

Disparities do appear to exist between Muslim and non-Muslim groups. A Los Angeles Times investigation recently found that 60 percent of the asylum seekers who were prosecuted at the Texas border were from Muslim-majority countries, including Afghanistan. Many critics also point to the treatment of Afghans fleeing the Taliban after the U.S. withdrawal with the relatively unfussy entry process afforded to Ukrainians escaping the brutal conflict with Russia, also a U.S. antagonist, in the Uniting for Ukraine program. Ukrainians could file entry applications online without having to prove their employment history, allegiance to the U.S. — or even that they were in imminent danger. They also did not have to pay fees.

“To me, the main takeaway is that [the U.S. government’s] Uniting for Ukraine is what it looks like when the U.S. government wants to say ‘yes,’” Bates says. “What the government is offering Afghans is what it looks like when the U.S. government wants to say ‘no.’”

The politicization of Muslim refugees has become so acute, advocates say, that even legislation promising additional vetting for Afghans is having trouble getting through Congress. The Afghan Adjustment Act, for example, would offer extra security checks if Congress agreed to pathways to citizenship for evacuees in the U.S. and an expansion of the SIV program. This is the “only bill that solves everyone’s problems,” says Chris Purdy of the nonprofit Human Rights First. But, as he and others point out, the legislation and certain other protections were nevertheless left out of the Omnibus spending bill last fall and keeps getting bumped this year. Even small wins, like the parole extension announced by the Biden administration, come with assurances of additional layers of screening.

“The Afghans applying for re-parole have all been subjected to vetting, then continuous vetting, now additional vetting… all due to ‘optics,’” said a USCIS source, granted anonymity to speak without fear of retaliation on the matter. “And yet, ‘We need more vetting if they are to get green cards!’”

According to Heba Gowayed, a Boston University sociologist and author of Refuge, populations fleeing conflict from Muslim-majority countries tend to be treated differently from other immigrant groups, perennially viewed through a security lens. Even if they qualify on paper through the scant available pathways, and satisfy the higher standards designated for them, they go through “immense logistical violence,” Gowayed says. For Muslim refugees and other vulnerable populations, the bureaucracy can be extremely arduous — before, during, and even after resettlement. They encounter more logjams, more hoops to jump through, more angst, and more punitive consequences.

The refugee program and other special pathways are “intended to be humanitarian, the process itself is deeply inhumane,” she adds.

The Nasiri family’s case is one among many that remain unresolved two years following the Taliban takeover — with family members, fixers and others languishing in Afghanistan and third countries for closure.

The refugee denial diminishes the Nasiri family’s prospects of moving to the U.S. But Najeeb has retained a lawyer from IRAP and filed an appeal to their SIV preliminary denial in June, which cited a contract mix-up on the employer’s end as the reason Najeeb’s term of service may have appeared “insufficient” — and provided the right contract number. In September, he also formally requested a review of his refugee denial.

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