Understanding Immigration

FAIR’s Spencer Raley, Preston Huennekens, and Matthew Tragesser discuss the poorly executed withdrawal from Afghanistan and how the U.S. can best address Afghan refugees, especially those who have helped the U.S. military.

What is Understanding Immigration?

The Federation for American Immigration Reform's podcast bringing you the most important news and information about U.S. immigration.

Today on Understanding Immigration: the Afghan Refugee Crisis

Spencer:
Welcome back to another episode of fairs Understanding Immigration podcast everyone this is Spencer Raley FAIR’s director of research and I am joined today by Matthew Tragesser from our media shop and Preston Huennekens from our lobbying department President Biden and his administration has been a crisis manufacturing machine so far the latest crisis of course is his appallingly poor handling of our withdrawal from Afghanistan we've all seen the tragic videos of people falling from airplanes crowds at the airports the Taliban conducting zoom interviews and American helicopters taking off from the roof of our Kabul embassy hearkening back to our eviction from Saigon the crisis has many issues of concern at the moment of course but one of the biggest issues facing the United States is how we assist those individuals who help the U.S. military during our time in the country and ideally this whole withdrawal would have been planned in advance of course but that didn't happen you know we didn't make plans and.. get first of all of course U.S. citizens out of the country and then those who assisted us as well you know this is all being done in reaction now so how do we facilitate this critical situation now I think it's a shame that this even needs to be mentioned but evacuating American citizens in the country that needs to be our number one priority period and it's tragic that doesn't necessarily seem to be the case right now we're seeing some flights consisting of only 20 percent U.S. citizens and numerous reports are coming out every day detailing citizens are unable to even reach the airport and now the Biden administration is saying they expect that some Americans will be left in the country after we completely withdraw that's just tragic now after that it is still an important question that we have to figure out is you know who else can we help and how do we assist them you know what's the best way for us to help those who helped our military over the last 20 years so Matthew I want to start with you here let's try to bring some clarification to this topic if that's possible who is in the country right now what is the administration's plans and what is the public sentiment on this topic right now?

Matthew:
Yeah so this has been obviously a very delicate and sensitive situation you know there's a lot of conflicting messages a lot of conflicting data out there and so I think it's important to start out by kind of discussing what we do know so far so it's important to know and you referenced this earlier spencer in your intro that there are still thousands of American citizens in Afghanistan they haven't been evacuated yet no one really knows the exact number U.S. intelligence experts suggest it could be between 10 and 15,000 which is obviously a large number that should not be remaining in that country now in terms of the Afghan refugee situation which is obviously kind of the dominating narrative of this situation so immediately the U.S. government is expected to bring in 30,000 Afghan refugees who qualify for this program called the special immigrant visa program SIV program and recipients of this visa are generally those from Afghanistan who helped the U.S. military in some capacity over the past years including you know interpreter roles translator roles driver roles and even helping with security efforts in Afghanistan now again that's about 30,000 who are immediately expected to be brought under this program now there will be other avenues other mechanisms where more of the Afghan population can come to our country we'll talk about that a little bit later experts suggest that this number could actually fall or reach between 100,000 and 300,000 which is obviously a lot bigger than the 30,000 that we know so far now in terms of what I’ve seen in the media about the situation the GOP actually seems pretty fractured on this you know you have and Preston I’m sure you can dive into this deeper in the episode here but when I’ve seen there's at least 10 GOP governors all across the country who are welcoming the resettlements actually in some cases even inviting or asking to invite more Afghan refugees to their states but then you have another kind of side of the of the GOP who are saying wait a minute let's put a break to all this let's make sure that we have sound vetting let's make sure that we're you know not bringing anyone to the country which is practically happening right now you see these military cargo planes flying into the U.S. and Wisconsin Virginia to these military bases and basically you know not all these people on these planes are SIV recipients or applicants so that you know creates logistical issues what happens if they don't qualify for the visa how long do they have to remain on these bases so again a big logistical mess but you know this is obviously a very delicate situation the GOP is really not there's not a united strategy on this and it's a mess to say the least so you know that's kind of an intro to this situation we'll dive into a lot of these topics in this episode but I’ll leave it at that for now.

Spencer:
Right and you know one thing I was just looking at here you know you're talking about eventually we could be looking at between 100 and 300,000 refugees SIV applicants refugee priority two applicants just you know individuals from Afghanistan come the United States I think it's important for us to take a look at this in a historical context as well you know in 2019 we saw just over 1,000 refugee arrivals come from Afghanistan 2018 it was 800 2017 it was just over a thousand at no point since 1990 have we seen that total exceed 3,000. we're talking about potentially increasing this annual total by what perhaps 100 fold 300 fold so this isn't just you know tacking on additional individuals to our refugee program as it is we're talking about massively increasing it last year we saw what the refugee cap was 15,000 and we're talking hundreds of thousands now not counting those refugees that are going to come from other countries as well so this is a massive increase during a time when immigration is at record highs when the border is being flooded with illegal aliens it's just you know opening up floodgates even more so Preston I want to turn to you here I know the situation is changing by the hour right now but what is the bite administration's plan at this point who are they planning to evacuate may bring a little bit more you know clarity to that where are they bringing them and how do they plan to vet these individuals or do they?

Preston:
So it's right now it's it's like you said it's a difficult situation on the ground but the Biden administration the pentagon and the intelligence agencies have kind of an idea of the people who they need to need or and want to get out of the country already you know there have been reports of these refugees arriving at military bases in Texas and in Virginia across the country and they're being held there right now until the government can really decide what to do with them because in many ways they are kind of in a limbo period they in some instances they haven't actually been vetted through the full SIV program yet or they haven't formally applied for refugee status so the government got them out of Afghanistan and just needs somewhere to put them and the easiest thing is to put them on federal land in military bases (right) in terms of how they plan to vet a lot of these people that's that's kind of a tricky subject because you know for instance our embassy when they were given orders to evacuate they were also told to destroy all documents many of those documents included correspondence between the Afghans that were helping us so it's really a black hole of information and we're largely going off of the word of the Afghans that are either still in Afghanistan or here at these military bases we're going off the word of our own military officials our own intelligence officials but there's really not a lot of documentation there and it's particularly with those who worked with the intelligence agencies you know you don't necessarily document who your sources are because god forbid if that was found out that person would likely be killed so it's not as it's very easy to say well bring them all over we know you really are kind of going off of their word and then I suppose in some instances the word of higher up U.S. officials but what we do know is that Biden President Biden has committed to withdrawing everyone out of out of Afghanistan by August 31st the Taliban has said that they will not allow anyone to leave the Kabul international airport after august 31st and it for this episode this is intriguing because they've said they're not going to allow Afghans to leave so we might say oh we have space you know we're we've told our refugee agencies to expect 50,000 paroled Afghans but if they can't leave the country there's you know how is that going to materialize but again there really is because everything is happening so fast because of the chaos that has gripped Afghanistan and the really hasty withdrawal that has occurred from the airport it's it is not entirely possible to vet these people in country before they arrive to the United States that goes for potential SIV applicants that goes for standard refugee admissions and that even goes for the people that the binding administration plans to parole there has been some talk of flying people to Guam this is something that the U.S. has done in the past it's called the pacific option where if we don't have enough refugee slots or the SIV program isn't moving fast enough what the government will do is transfer people to Guam which is a U.S. territory we did this with Vietnam and we did this with Iraqi Kurds in 1996 so that has been discussed as well but by and large most of these people will make it to the United States once they're on a plane and outside of Afghanistan I find it very hard to believe that the U.S. government particularly with the current administration is going to remove these people to Afghanistan so you know Spencer I’ll kick it to you to talk a little bit more about the SIV program and about some of the fraud that is present in that program just again touching on the reality that we don't have documentation from any of these people most of it was destroyed when we when we abandoned the embassy.

Spencer:
Right you're right that's a very good point and vetting for the SIV program vetting for refugees it's a very similar process you know it and technically it is essentially the same process and we saw reports that for refugee applicants in recent years from Iraq there have been more than 4,000 instances of fraud discovered and many of these were discovered after individuals had already been brought into the United States which is quite concerning we're already seeing I’ve already seen one at least one news report of an individual that's been flown out of Afghanistan in recent weeks and they're going oh wait we're finding out this person has ties to ISIS so well how many more of these situations are we going to figure out you know in looking at the comparison between Iraq and Afghanistan I think it's very important also to note that Iraq was a police state before we went in there and unfortunately I mean fortunately for our vetting purposes unfortunately for the people in Iraq police states actually keep very good records on their political dissidents and opponents because they like to keep tabs on them we were able to go in and collect a lot of this intel and it helped us actually with vetting you know opponents to the Saddam regime those that often ended up becoming refugees to the United States Afghanistan doesn't have any of that first of all it's a very tribal culture you have a lot of different tribes within the country that kind of have their own leaders and essentially almost their own government there is not been any really functional centralized government in Afghanistan for many many years now and because of that there's no central databases that we can pull from in fact the state department acknowledged this in a report from June of last year noting that fraud is a much bigger issue for Afghan refugee applicants than it is for other countries in the middle east because there is no paper trailer they can use you know sometimes they might be able to get an interview from a tribal leader and that's about the best you can do so in other words these things are very open to fraud very open they're based on us basically listening to someone saying hey are you do we think you're lying or not you know and so that's a very significant issue and we also see unfortunately you know a lot of allegiances in these in Afghanistan's tribal culture are very very fluid you know individuals will be on one side one day and another side the next day so again it can be very difficult to properly vet individuals or to be sure that their allegiances lie where they say they are you know just because they're on our side 10 years ago doesn't necessarily mean that they are today.

Preston:
And as an aside that fluidity is why the Taliban was able to overtake the country so quickly is because…

Spencer:
Right! whatever happened to Afghanistan's military that would have been training for so many years you know a lot of these individuals are now Taliban fighters.
Preston:
The culture there is that you give you arrive at the village you speak to the tribal elders and you say look we're here anyone who surrenders we will let go and be free if anyone fights we'll fight to the death and that that's largely how they were able to sweep through the country with a (right) really a skeleton crew of actual fighters but when you when you're dealing with those kind of cultural dynamics that's something that in the west we just did not understand we're like why would they not fight and it's like because it wasn't in their interests and that's not how they that's not how their culture works.

Spencer:
Right and oftentimes you'll see you know those who may even be a part of the Afghanistan military their allegiances lie first and foremost to their tribal clan so when a leader of that clan says hey we have chosen peace with the Taliban versus having our entire clan wiped out the allegiances for that military member is going to change to adhere to what their clan says you know and it's just a different dynamic than I think what most of us in the west and especially in the United States really identify to you know I guess you could say it would be akin to if a foreign army took over your state or even your city or something you know is your allegiance to the United States or is it to whatever elite or whoever is running that city or your family at the time it's just a completely different dynamic and so I think it's important to keep that in mind and we're seeing reports now that the Biden administration is wanting to bring 50,000 individuals into the United States without even completing the visa process whether that's for special immigrant visa or for getting refugee status and so looking at how difficult it is to vet refugees from Afghanistan Iraq the middle east on a good day we're talking about a mass number of migrants who aren't vetted at all coming into the United States that's concerning in 2017 we saw that nearly a third of all FBI terrorism cases active terrorism cases involved someone who came to the United States as a refugee and FBI Director James Comey at the time acknowledged that a large number of these individuals quote infiltrated our country via the refugee program end quote while others were targeted and groomed by terrorist organizations after they came here so I mean the refugee program on a good day is not iron clad in terms of security and in fact far from it so I mean it's really critical that whoever we do bring to this country or help out in any way are properly vetted and there's really no excuse to ever bring someone to the United States that hasn't been vetted the security risk is just too high.
Matthew:
Well even add on to that I think you guys may have seen this Washington Times article talking about the SIV acceptance rate from this year and in the first three months of the year was only a 16% acceptance rate so 84% of applicants for this special visa program were denied and I would assume a lot of that has to do with fraud incomplete records national security concerns so I mean you explained it very well there Spencer but I mean this program is not a program that's free of bad people.

Spencer:
It's concerning because you know if you're in Afghanistan and you want to come to the United States either for you know economic reasons for legitimate you know persecution because you're part of a legitimate persecution situation or perhaps for nefarious reasons why not at least put in an application for refugee status SIV visa one of these programs and you know maybe you can slip in maybe you can yeah like you said either commit fraud or others just put in the application and we'll see well these individuals are winning the lottery now because like you mentioned you're talking more than potentially more than 80 percent of the individuals that are going to be flown over here now would have had their SIV application rejected either because they committed fraud or they just didn't meet the criteria and they were kind of throwing a Hail Pass and (exactly) why not apply anyway.

Preston:
That's the thing is that there and people forget this is that in any conflict there are a large number of people who are just strictly neutral and if this program is being offered and you have a chance to leave Afghanistan for the United States even if you had no dog in the fight you're gonna sign up and say that you worked with the government and my documents were destroyed or I don't have them anymore and again it gets back to it's the you know their word versus our word and in a war situation it's very confusing it's I think that a lot that probably accounts for I would say most of the rejections is that these people apply and then you look at it's like we don't know this person from Adam (right) we've never met them before but that's how these things work and again it's there you can't fault them for trying if because like you said Spencer that's winning the lottery.

Spencer:
Exactly I mean and I know a lot of people are just going to say well why is this an issue why can't you just fly hundreds of thousands of people over the United States well I mean aside from thinking long terms how that's going to impact our economy how that's going to impact society in the United States we've talked about issues with vetting issues with national security and I think it's also important just to note logistics because we're kind of getting a mini view of that right now with you know all of these thousands of individuals you know flooding the Kabul airport you know the flights coming out and that is leading to you know these tragic videos of people throwing babies over razor wire of people unable to get past checkpoints you know confused mass confusion you're talking about logistics alone you're starting to see why vetting is important why a solid application process is important versus just if you can get to the airport we'll bring you to the United States sort of like what we're seeing on the southern border if you can get to the border and get across the border we'll bring you to the United States you know forget about the consequences whether they be you know covid or national security or gang related you know this policy that we're seeing coming from the Biden administration time after time which is essentially just (worry about it later) worry about it later you know punt the consequences down the road those consequences are going to come home and that's why it's so important that these things are planned properly planned especially when it comes to situations like immigration you know we have to properly plan them because we're not at this point we're not even thinking about how do we adjust these individuals into American life where are they going to work are we going to give them welfare where are they going to live you know we already you know we're already seeing issues like urban sprawl at you know record levels we're having water issues and states that you normally wouldn't think would have issues with water like Florida it's because these things aren't properly planned over time and that has to be a part of the process right now I was just reading a news story this morning the Dulles expo center which is right by Dulles international airport it just looks like an old Walmart or something and it's just chuck full of these individuals right now because they don't know what to do with them right like where are you going to put them?


Preston:
And I think that brings up a great point too from the humanitarian aspect of resettling refugees in region versus in the United States the U.S. committee for refugees and immigration has said before the cost of resettling one refugee in the United States is equivalent to settling 12 refugees in region so we have to think about that because sure it feels good to bring them to the U.S. and it and it does feel good to see them in our in our communities and help them and volunteer with them but if you were talking about helping as many people as possible getting as many people as possible out of Afghanistan and into a better situation it makes much more sense to settle them in region and one of the best illustrations that I’ve ever heard of this is from Mark Krikorian from the Center for Immigration Studies where he says imagine that there are a group of you know 25 people that are drowning in the middle of the open ocean and there's you know you can either toss them you know you can either give them a life raft that's you know not necessarily fantastic but everyone can get on board everyone can be saved no one's going to drown in the open ocean or you can pick you know three of those people and give each of them a yacht that is essentially what U.S.-based resettlement looks like because instead of helping as many people as you can get out of a horrible situation you are picking and choosing who gets left behind so that a select few can live in prosperity in the United States.

Spencer:
Right and it's not even necessarily accurate that these individuals are going to come to the United States and live prosperous happy lives in fact we did a report a few years ago that found that the vast majority of refugees are making less than fifteen dollars an hour five years after they enter the United States they're not adapting well to culture most are having trouble learning the language most have just a really difficult time figuring out how the culture works because again they didn't plan over a period of years to come to the United States they didn't study the language they didn't study the culture they were brought here on you know just this process is often rapidly moving you know we it's it it's just an undeniable fact that individuals who are resettled in countries closer to home you know they know the language most likely they are more familiar with the culture they can fit into probably a similar you know job to the field they were in before and there have also been studies that have shown that individuals that are resettled closer to home a lot of these were you know focusing on Latin America but the same is also true with the middle east individuals that are closer at home often stay more involved in trying to change the culture in their home country and quite frankly that's what whether we're talking about you know Afghanistan or Iraq or even in central America south America El Salvador in Guatemala these individuals need good upstanding citizens oftentimes citizens with means that's what refugees often end up being to be interested in instigating change in their home country and we often see that's more likely if the individual stays closer to home so yeah it's it's not necessarily even that we are choosing the best option for these individuals by bringing them all to the United States so it's just overall a situation that needs to properly be considered proper planning needs to take place just from a myriad of different angles.

Matthew:
And even you know we talked about kind of this idea of resettling these Afghan refugees in neighboring countries or areas to Afghanistan but what's interesting is in Qatar there is a hangar right now housing African refugees temporarily but there was a report yesterday by the New York Post saying that they've described the conditions as a living hell with feces urine and rats and so if the Biden administration is going to implement a strategy like this using our military bases in the middle east using partners in that region we can't be putting people in these types of conditions you know it's an unsustainable system it has to show you that maybe that we need more help more partners engaged in this effort I mean if we're just putting every single person into this hangar and worrying about the situation later I mean of course it's going to end up like this I mean it's it's terrible.

Spencer:
And let's be realistic here other countries in the middle east that can take refugees need to do so because they're not they're not innocent dogs in this fight you know they they share they share some of the responsibility for what's going on and after (yeah where are the NATO countries) exactly you know…

Preston:
And I think Saudi Arabia would be a fantastic option because that's the entire reason that we were in Afghanistan in the first place is because of Al-Qaeda’s anger that we stayed in Saudi Arabia so maybe Saudi Arabia could step up to the plate you know they're building new projects every year I’m sure they could use some extra helping hands give those people a good living wage and you know finally rise up to their what they claim to be which is you know the Sunni you know regional superpower.

Spencer:
Right so I mean you've got all these countries surrounding the area that bear a lot of responsibility for what's gone on there over the last 20 to 50 years we need to expect them to share some of this weight instead of taking it all on ourselves and you know this is also true for some of our other western allies who are involved in this effort you know at this point just seems like it's a reactionary effort by the Biden administration to just import the entire problem to the United States and we'll deal with it later it's just going to create additional crises and it's going to inevitably lead to tragedy and essentially what we're doing is creating a whole bunch of new mistakes to try to cover for a big mistake you could argue that we've made over you know at least recently if not over large portions of the last 20 years.

Matthew:
Well here's the other element too that we haven't really discussed is you know with the Biden border crisis is still raging on and let's not forget that's there's been no signs of that stopping any time soon but you know a lot of these central Americans the northern triangle Guatemala and El Salvador they're still using our asylum system for trying to seek better wages better jobs and that's not what our asylum system is for right but you know this is clogging up the asylum system where Afghan refugees people who are actually being persecuted by the Taliban are not going to be able to use I mean they're going to be pushed to the back of the line

Spencer:
If nothing else they're just going to live in a state of you know insecurity for years because they don't know how these court cases are going to end up right now the backlog of immigration cases I believe is over 1.2 million deep and that's growing by you know 100,000 or more every month and now we're talking about adding potentially a quarter million or more individuals into this process that are going to need to have cases adjudicated they're going to the ones that have been found to have some form of fraud they're gonna their cases are gonna have to be heard we're adding more to our plates than what we can currently handle and it's just going to make life difficult for not just our federal officials who are sifting through this but for the migrants as well you know it's not fair to anybody.

Matthew:
You know another question I wanted to ask you guys quickly here is I know I mentioned earlier in the episode that some experts suggested about 100,000 to 300,000 Afghan refugees are expected to come within the next few years to our country but you know let's think about it Afghanistan is a population of 38 million people I mean under our U.S. asylum laws couldn't the vast majority of that population qualify for asylum in our country I mean they're being persecuted likely based on their race religion nationality political opinion membership to particular social group yeah that's a large number.

Preston:
Again the Taliban has said that they will not let any Afghans leave the country after the 31st and unless you're going to walk yeah really the only way you could get out is through Kabul airport so I mean certainly the if you're looking at based on our asylum laws if they could get here they would almost certainly qualify but yeah but again you're talking about a country on the other side of the world with one international airport that is going to be controlled by a group that doesn't want people leaving and by and large I think in Afghanistan unless you live in Kabul or one of these other larger cities you're not you're not going to have the means to…

Spencer:
You're largely stuck there you don't have the means and again to like leave by foot you're either crossing massive deserts or over practically impassable mountain passes but I do think this is an important point and you know we've already seen the willingness of the Biden administration to increase refugee caps you know tenfold or more you know are they going to continue to do this to meet you know expectations that they created you know as a result of this crisis in Afghanistan or are they finally going to accept reality and say hey we have we have to continue to honor our refugee caps we have to try to get a handle on this situation all right well I think that's all the time we have for today I hope that you've enjoyed today's episode and perhaps learned something new about this ever-changing ever-growing crisis just as a reminder we release new episodes every other Monday for any new listeners to this podcast we invite you to check out our series on your favorite platform such as google apple and spotify to see what other topics we've discussed that may interest you we are now at 40 episodes that cover important topics that impact your daily lives there's a lot for you to listen if you're new to this topic there's a lot for you to learn so we invite you to go check out that library and hopefully continue to follow us as we release new episodes every other week hope each and every one of you are continuing to stay safe and sound in these chaotic times until next time this has been Understanding Immigration presented by FAIR.