Biden puts DHS in charge of resettling Afghan refugees

AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana

If you were wondering who will be in charge of resettling the Afghan refugees who come to the United States, that question has been answered. On Sunday the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that Biden has put the agency in the lead of this large-scale project. A current FEMA administrator will head the Unified Coordination Group.

It would be reasonable to raise an eyebrow at the decision, given the failures we’ve seen coming from DHS in its handling of the humanitarian crisis at the southern border. But DHS is the usual choice to handle the newest humanitarian crisis created by Joe Biden and his administration. Agencies like FEMA are under the umbrella of DHS and have experience in organizing resources needed in times like this. We are just hours away from the arbitrary deadline set by Biden for the U.S. to be out of Afghanistan and the last push to get Americans and our Afghan helpers out of the country is on.

DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence for many of us, given his performance so far but he has given the lead of this assignment to Robert J. Fenton Jr. He will lead the Unified Coordination Group. This group will coordinate and oversee resettlement efforts which will include immigration processing, COVID-19 testing, and resettlement support. Fenton is a longtime employee of FEMA, hired in 1996, and currently serves as Regional Administrator for FEMA Region 9. Region 9 is headquartered in Oakland, California.

Prior to 2015, Fenton served as Deputy Associate Administrator in the Office of Response and Recovery at FEMA. He has experience in several large-scale recovery operations such as Hurricane Katrina and the 9/11/01 attacks on the World Trade Center. So, he’s a career government bureaucrat, let’s just hope he’s a competent one and will be able to use past experience now that he’s in the lead of this effort.

“I am honored by the confidence placed in me and I am privileged to be able to contribute to this vital mission,” Fenton said in the announcement.

“The Department of Homeland Security is prepared to serve as the lead federal agency coordinating efforts across the federal government to welcome vulnerable Afghans to our Nation in a way that is consistent with our laws and our values,” Mayorkas said in a press release.

“This mission reflects the best of who we are as a country and our Department is honored by the trust the President has placed in us. There is no one better than Bob Fenton to help lead our efforts,” Mayorkas added. “Bob has dedicated his career to public service and has decades of experience managing complex and critically important missions. He will help lead this interagency effort with incredible adeptness and the highest standards of honor and integrity.”

Many thousands of those who have been evacuated from Afghanistan hold Special Immigrant Visas (SIV). In order to receive that visa, the Afghan refugee must have worked with American diplomats and our troops over the years of the war in Afghanistan. In the rush to get tens of thousands of people out of Afghanistan before Biden’s deadline, many Afghan refugees are only partway through their immigration process. Others have not yet applied to live in the U.S. So, the Biden administration is granting temporary admission. It is being described as a kind of “parole” for certain evacuees, considered on a case-by-case basis. This may create legal questions, though.

Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas directed Customs and Border Protection earlier this week to “parole” certain evacuees on a case-by-case basis into the US, according to a memo from Mayorkas to CBP acting Commissioner Troy Miller.

The move will allow Afghan nationals who are part of Operation Allies Refuge to remain in the US for two years following security vetting, according to the memo.

But that parole process, while necessary given the circumstances, also raises significant practical and legal questions with the potential to impact the future of many Afghans relocated to the US.

Customs and Border Protection, the agency responsible for screening arriving Afghans, has the authority to grant parole at ports of entry, like Washington Dulles International Airport, where evacuation flights have landed in the US.

The reason for flights arriving at Dulles is that refugees are arriving on commercial air flights, as Biden and the Secretary of Defense activated the Civil Reserve Air Fleet. Commercial airlines have been called into duty to bring evacuees from bases in third countries like Germany who begin the processing of the Afghan refugees. The current situation presents more complicated problems for those managing the evacuation. The rapid fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban accelerated the evacuation before the normal vetting process and paperwork was completed.

“What we have now with Afghanistan is so much more complicated,” said Doris Meissner, senior fellow and director of the US Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute, pointing to Afghans who have been flown to the US before there was enough time to finish their refugee or Special Immigrant Visa processing.
There’s a long history of parole in the US, but the current Afghanistan situation presents “incredibly unusual, in some ways unprecedented, circumstances,” she said.

In recent months the administration rushed to accelerate visa processing for eligible Afghans but the rapid Taliban takeover followed by the frenzied effort to get tens of thousands of people out of Afghanistan has led to a hodgepodge of legal statuses for arriving Afghans — and the need for the use of temporary admission.

Once paroled by Customs and Border Protection, Afghan nationals may be eligible to apply for status in the US through Citizenship and Immigration Services, another agency within DHS, Mayorkas’ memo said.
Conditions may be placed on Afghan nationals as part of this process, such as medical screening and reporting requirements.

This brings us back to a question I asked in a post yesterday – what happens to Afghan evacuees who do not pass muster in the process of vetting? What happens when those who are only partially through the paperwork process are discovered to not meet the requirements of a special visa to remain in America on a permanent basis? Are they just sent back to face the consequences of their attempt to leave the country at the hands of the Taliban? Will other countries take them? The Biden administration hasn’t answered questions on how many evacuees are receiving these parole designations. The administration seems to be planning for up to 50,000 evacuees to arrive in the U.S.

The Biden administration may be creating a legal quagmire for the evacuees.

Parole allows the US to admit foreign nationals but it does not unlock services they would receive as refugees, such as help with housing and employment and overall support from refugee resettlement agencies.

Converting people who are already in the US from parole to refugee status also presents a legal challenge, since refugee determinations are typically made while applicants are still overseas.

A senior administration official told reporters Tuesday that Mayorkas is using his parole authority, including his ability to impose particular conditions, to ensure that people arriving in the US do so with appropriate legal status.
Parole authority “provides some flexibility for individuals for whom there is not a relevant legal status,” the official said.

Some encouraging news is that once the refugees have completed vetting and going through the legal steps and paperwork to remain in the U.S., many communities are offering to support their relocation. From volunteers in north Texas to Iowa, stories are coming out of groups organizing to help as a way of thanking Afghan helpers who supported American troops in Afghanistan. They were promised a life outside of Afghanistan for their work and securing legal residence in America for those who qualify is keeping our word. That will be important moving forward since Joe Biden has so disgraced us on the international stage, especially with our NATO allies. They will not trust him again.