As an expert on military-related immigration matters, I am disappointed that Alaska U.S. Senate candidate Kelly Tshibaka chose in a recent opinion piece to demagogue the plight of Afghan war refugees, rather than acknowledge the multiple causes of this humanitarian disaster. Moreover, Tshibaka failed to propose meaningful steps to improve the situation.
I am a retired U.S. Army Reserve lieutenant colonel (Military Police Corps), a former professor at the United States Military Academy and an Anchorage attorney who has practiced immigration law for more than 25 years. I am also the author of the book “Immigration Law and the Military” (2nd ed. 2015). One section of that book specifically addresses Special Immigrants who have worked with the U.S. government overseas. I have personally represented Afghan interpreters and their families seeking sanctuary in the United States. In 2013, I was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship for “finding solutions to complex immigration issues faced by military personnel and contributing to policy debates about the role of a healthy immigration system in ensuring national security.”
Tshibaka — who has been endorsed by former President Donald Trump — said nothing about President Trump’s “surrender agreement with the Taliban,” a quote from President Trump’s former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. She instead heavily criticized President Joe Biden for “betrayal of our Afghan allies.” She acknowledged that “we should open our arms to Afghans seeking freedom and protection from persecution, beginning with those who risked their lives to support our troops.” But Tshibaka then warned us that terrorists may be “exploiting our compassion by using our refugee program” and asserted that “thus far, President Biden has offered only a vague commitment that refugees will be ‘screened,’ but that provides no assurance” that will happen.
First, Tshibaka ignored an important reason why we faced a huge crush of U.S. allied individuals desperately seeking to flee Kabul upon the collapse of the Afghanistan government: For years, the Trump administration disregarded the will of Congress and intentionally slow-rolled the processing of applicants to the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV, program.
Recognizing the moral obligation to protect Afghans who risked their lives to protect our troops, Congress originally created the SIV program in 2007 under President George W. Bush. Unfortunately, the Trump administration impeded this program, thereby increasing the substantial backlog of unprocessed SIV applications. The new Biden administration began efforts to resuscitate the program but a huge backlog remained at the time of the fall of Kabul. Former Homeland Security and Counterterrorism advisor to Vice President Pence Olivia Troye recently tweeted:
“There were many cabinet mtgs about this during the Trump Admin where Stephen Miller would peddle his racist hysteria about Iraq & Afghanistan. He & his enablers across gov’t would undermine anyone who worked on solving the SIV issue by devastating the system at DHS and State. I tracked this issue personally in my role during my (White House) tenure. Pence was fully aware of the problem. We got nowhere because Trump/S. Miller had watchdogs in place at DOJ, DHS, State & security agencies that made an already cumbersome SIV process even more challenging ... The Pentagon weighed in saying we needed to get these allies through the process — Mattis/others sent memos. We all knew the urgency but the resources have been depleted ... The process slowed to a trickle for reviews/other “priorities” — then came to a halt.”
Given Tshibaka’s effort to polemicize rather than illuminate, she ignored the broader history of the problem.
Tshibaka next ignored the extensive vetting to which Afghan refugees are subjected. Tshibaka repeatedly warned against “terrorists” and “Islamic extremists,” while falsely claiming that “President Biden has offered only a vague commitment that refugees will be ‘screened.’” In fact, Afghan refugees have been, and continue to be, extensively screened.
Shortly before Tshibaka’s opinion piece was published, DHS issued a fact sheet describing the extensive vetting being done on those who are being evacuated to the United States “Operation Allies Welcome.” In addition to addressing other issues, DHS reiterated the ongoing screening process to which these individuals are subjected.
The screening and vetting process involves biometric and biographic screenings conducted by intelligence, law enforcement, and counterterrorism professionals from the Departments of Homeland Security and Defense, as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Counterterrorism Center and additional Intelligence Community partners. The U.S. government has worked with urgency and care to enhance screening and vetting operations to make them more efficient without compromising national security. This has resulted in a robust interagency process that efficiently screens Afghans at risk prior to their travel to the United States.
If Tshibaka had a specific criticism regarding how Afghan refugees are being screened, presumably she would have raised that issue. Tshibaka instead chose to pander to anti-immigrant fears for perceived political gain. Americans, Alaskans and the refugees who risked their lives for Americans in Afghanistan all deserve better.
Margaret Stock is a 30-plus-year Alaska resident and retired Army Reserve officer who has taught constitutional and national security law and political science at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and UAA. She was an independent candidate for U.S. Senate in 2016.
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