Operation Allies Refuge: Who Exactly Was on Those Planes? 

By Nayla Rush on September 14, 2021

According to official reports, the United States evacuated 124,000 people out of Afghanistan during Operation Allies Refuge (July 14 through August 31).

We don’t know exactly who was on those planes and, by all accounts, neither do U.S. officials.

The ongoing narrative of evacuating Afghan nationals who risked their lives to help U.S. forces in Afghanistan is closer to a myth than it is reality. The truth is, amid the chaos and the urgency, most who got on board had nothing to do with the U.S. government or any of its contractors.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken explained the evacuation process to the press on September 3. He said the first priority was to get people out of there, and figure out later on exactly who’s who:

And given the premium that we put on getting people out as quickly and as safely as possible… then really digging into exactly which categories they may fit into.  Were they locally employed staff?  Were they SIVs, Afghans at risk, potential P-1 or P-2 [refugees],  parolees, et cetera?  All of that work now is what we’re doing.

Many evacuees got priority access just because some human rights organizations gave their names to U.S. officials. One official involved in the evacuation effort confided to the Washington Post:

When organizations that were involved in human rights advocacy provided the United States with lists of people seeking to evacuate, officials didn’t have time to determine whether they were qualified. We essentially took the nature of the organization and their affirmation that these people were who they were and just assumed it was an at-risk organization. (All emphases are added.)

There’s a lot we are still waiting to uncover, but here’s some of what we do know:

The vast majority of evacuees were Afghan nationals, or “Afghans at risk” (a new terminology used by U.S. officials to mean, in short, almost any Afghan who is not a Taliban). Most Afghan evacuees entering the United Stated do not have a visa and are being "paroled" in (as explained below).

Most evacuees were not interpreters/translators or "allies", i.e. those who worked for or on behalf of the U.S. government and who faced a serious threat as a result of that employment and are eligible for Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs). The Biden administration did acknowledge that only a small share of those admitted in the United States qualified through the SIV program.

The United States helped evacuate potential terrorists out of Afghanistan. A number of Afghan evacuees have shown up on terror watchlists. Officials are not saying “whether any Afghans were deemed a security risk after landing in the U.S.” but we know that at least two Afghan evacuees admitted here are going to be sent to Kosovo for further review because of “security concerns”.

These two are only the tip of the iceberg.

On September 9, The Washington Post reported that DHS “flagged 44 Afghan evacuees as potential national security risks during the past two weeks.” Further details are given by the news outlet:

Of the 60,000 evacuees who had arrived on U.S. soil when the story was published, 13 Afghans remained in U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody awaiting additional screening. Another 15 evacuees were turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Some were sent back to transit sites in Europe or the Middle East, while others were approved for release after further review. Sixteen Afghans were not cleared to travel and remain overseas in U.S. transit sites.

Moreover, sources familiar with the U.S. evacuation of Afghans told NBC news that, of the thousands of Afghan evacuees to the United States, about 10,000 needed additional screening and about 100 were flagged for possible ties to the Taliban or terror groups. Others were found to have been previously deported from the United States for criminal offenses. DHS has yet to figure out what to do with those individuals.

One thing is certain: deporting an Afghan (whether on terror watchlist or not) back to Afghanistan will prove difficult if not impossible.  Under international human rights law, the principle of non-refoulement “guarantees that no one should be returned to a country where they would face torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and other irreparable harm.”

Vetting Afghans under current circumstances is almost impossible. It was already difficult when American forces were present in Afghanistan.  According to a CRS report, the FY2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) “directed the DOS Inspector General to report on the SIV programs for persons who worked for or on behalf of the U.S. government.” The report, completed in June 2020, evaluated the Afghan SIV program. Among its conclusions:

OIG found that the Department’s staffing levels across its various offices that process Afghan SIVs have generally remained constant since 2016 and are insufficient to reduce the SIV applicant backlog…. Additionally, the Department lacks a centralized database to effectively document the identity of locally employed staff and contractors.

Even if additional staffing is made available now to ease the backlog, an effective centralized database of Afghan allies is even more unlikely.

Who Was Evacuated Out of Afghanistan?

Here’s the official break down of all evacuees, though the numbers are still in flux:

Over 5,500 were U.S. citizens (of an estimated 6,000 American citizens present in Afghanistan at the time). Over 99,000 were Afghan nationals. According to the State Department spokesperson, “it is fair to say that the vast majority of individuals who were evacuated as of August 31st fall into the category of Afghans at risk, and many of them will be SIVs.”

Secretary Blinken delivered a similar message on September 3rd during his remarks to the press:

Of the roughly 124,000 people who’ve been evacuated, the vast majority – the vast majority, 75, 80 percent – are Afghans at risk.  And of those, some significant number will be SIVs, either people who already hold an SIV visa or those who are actually in the pipeline.  Some number will be potential P-1 or P-2 refugees or – and some other number will be Afghans at risk, prominent in one way or another, who may not fit into any of those categories.  We’re working through all of those numbers now, and again, I think we’ll have more to say on that in the days and weeks ahead as we actually work through them.

Here’s who made it to the United States as of August 31: Of the 124,000 flown out of Afghanistan, 31,107 had arrived in the United States. Of that subset, 4,446 (14 percent) were U.S. citizens, 2,785 (9 percent) green card holders, and 23,876 (77 percent) Afghan nationals.

These 23,876 Afghans belong to the following immigration categories: “SIVs, other visa holders, P-1/P-2 [refugee] referrals, and perhaps others as well.”

Arrival numbers beyond August 31 were updated as such: As of September 7, about 58,000 evacuees had arrived in the United States. 6,400 U.S. citizens (11 percent); 3,500 green card holders (6 percent); and almost 48,000 Afghan nationals (83 percent) most of whom lacked visas and were paroled in.

Admission/Immigration Categories for Evacuees: Parolees, SIVs, and Refugees

As noted above, most Afghan evacuees entering the United Stated are being paroled in without a visa.

Immigration Parole” is an “official permission to enter and remain temporarily in the United States. It does not constitute formal admission under the U.S. immigration system... A parolee is permitted to remain in the United States for the duration of the grant of parole, and may be granted work authorization.” Parole is typically granted for “no longer than one year” but parolees who need to remain beyond their authorized parole period can request re-parole.

DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas recently requested that a two-year parole be granted to Afghan evacuees on a case-by-case basis.

Parolees have limited access to benefits; and, unlike refugees, they are not eligible for resettlement assistance or other federal benefits. They can, however, apply to adjust their status based, for example, on a qualifying relationship to a family member or apply for, in the case of Afghan parolees, either an SIV status or asylum (with the benefits associated with such statuses).

Afghan parolees have access to a number of rights:

  • Work: Parolees can apply for work authorization on USCIS form I-765 and can begin to work if/when USCIS approves their request for work authorization.
  • Education: Right to K-12 public education regardless of immigration status.
  • Law enforcement: Right to remain silent if approached by a law enforcement or police officer.

Other admission possibilities for Afghans are through the SIV programs or the refugee resettlement program (P1 or P2 category).

There are two SIV programs available for certain Afghan nationals who worked for or on behalf of the U.S. government in Afghanistan (see here for more details). There were some 18,000 pending Afghan SIV applicants (around 100,000 if we include dependents – if accepted, principal applicants can bring their family members with them).

The P1/P2 categories refer to processing priorities within the U.S. refugee resettlement program.

Priority 1 pertains to general prospective refugee applicants referred to the program by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a United States embassy, or an NGO.

Priority 2, also known as "Direct Access", refers to groups of special humanitarian concern identified by U.S. officials. P2s can apply on their own, without the need for a referral by the UN or other third party. This allows for quicker processing and adjudications.

The Biden administration announced in early August a “Priority 2 (P-2) designation granting U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) access for certain Afghan nationals and their eligible family members.” This designation will allow for the permanent resettlement of Afghans who are not eligible for a Special Immigrant Visa “because they did not have qualifying employment, or because they have not met the time-in-service requirement to become eligible.”

SIVs are granted a green card on their day of arrival in the United States, while refugees have to apply for a green card one year after admission. SIVs are eligible for the same resettlement assistance and federal public benefits as refugees.

What Next?

Some 50,000 Afghan evacuees are still being processed at U.S. bases abroad before being admitted into the United States or to other countries. Canada has agreed to resettle 5,000, other countries might follow suit but the remainder will likely end up in American cities.

We also should expect more SIV applicants as those who helped U.S. forces and felt no desire or need to leave Afghanistan in the past will probably want to do so now that their country is under a Taliban rule.

But SIV spots are limited. The main SIV program is temporary, meaning that Congress authorizes a certain number of visas to be issued in total, rather than an annual cap that repeats every year; when the pool of visas is used up, the program ends, unless Congress adds more. There were some 19,000 spots still available in July after Congress authorized 8,000 additional SIVs. Of course, Congress can always add more spots in the future.

That said, there are millions of Afghans who did not assist U.S. forces, but who could nonetheless end up wanting to leave their country as refugees, fearful of a Taliban rule. The UNHCR expects up to 515,000 people fleeing Afghanistan (these would join the 2.2 million registered Afghan refugees already abroad, mainly in neighboring Pakistan and Iran). What does the United States do, resettle all 515,000?

Refugee admissions into the United States (unlike asylum seekers) are numerically limited by a yearly presidential determination. The ceiling for FY 2021 was set at 62,500 by President Biden (up from President Trump’s 15,000 cap). Actual refugee admissions from all countries this fiscal year (through July 31) total 6,274 (of whom 494 were from Afghanistan). The refugee ceiling for FY 20220 (starting October 1)  is likely to be increased to up to 200,000 (Biden had promised a 125,000 cap, but that was before the Afghan debacle).

Whether it’s 125,000 or 200,000 or more for FY 2022, the refugee admissions ceiling includes all nationalities, not just Afghans. Whether Afghan refugees are to be prioritized at the expense of other nationalities in the future remains to be seen, but they weren’t in the past. Only 11,246 Afghan refugees were resettled in the United States in the past twelve years (FY 2009-21, according to the Refugee Processing Center).

What’s next for the Afghan evacuees who made it (and will make it) to the United States? As mentioned, under current law, parolees (unlike SIVs and refugees) are not eligible for resettlement assistance or other federal benefits; they only have access to a short-term (90 days) assistance. Moreover, they are not provided an immigration status. They could adjust their status to SIVs or asylum seekers, but these adjudications can take a long time.

This can change with the White House new emergency spending request to Congress of $6.4 billion to fund, among other things, operations on U.S. military bases where Afghans are being processed as well as cover resettlement benefits and immigration paperwork for Afghan parolees.

The Biden administration wants Congress to pass a short-term “continuing resolution” (CR) that will make all Afghans paroled into the United States between July 31, 2021 and September 30, 2022 “eligible for resettlement assistance, entitlement programs and other benefits”. These Afghan parolees will be “considered to be in a lawful status for the purpose of eligibility for a driver’s license or identification card” and will be able to apply for green cards one year after arrival. Those green cards will not count under the annual numerical limits.

A number of points included in this CR are worth mentioning here (for more insight, refer to my colleague Andrew Arthur's detailed post on the subject):

  • An Afghan national as defined in this CR “includes a citizen or national of Afghanistan or any other person who last habitually resided in Afghanistan who has no nationality [i.e. stateless individuals].”
  • Spouses and children of Afghan parolees “who are subsequently paroled or admitted into the United States at any point after the entry of that Afghan national shall be entitled to the same treatment [i.e. refugee resettlement benefits, IDs, driver’s licenses, green cards etc.]” (Emphasis added.) 
  • Certain grounds of inadmissibility listed under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) can be waived for Afghan parolees. Those include inadmissibility on health-related grounds, criminal and related grounds, security and related grounds, public charge etc.

Whether Congress passes this new White House spending request remains to be seen. Meanwhile, one cannot but wonder whether this latest push by the Biden administration will open the door to similar benefits for future parolees of any nationality?