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Afghan evacuees on terror watchlists stopped from entering U.S., Mayorkas says

"We deny access [to the U.S.] to individuals whose derogatory information is not resolved," said DHS Secretary Mayorkas.
Evacuees wait to board a Boeing C-17 Globemaster III during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 23, 2021.
Evacuees wait to board a Boeing C-17 Globemaster III during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 23, 2021.Sgt. Isaiah Campbell / U.S. Marine Corps

WASHINGTON — Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Friday said that some people recently evacuated from Afghanistan by the U.S. were flagged on terror watchlists while they were in transit and not allowed to enter the U.S.

"In fact we have," Mayorkas said, responding to a question in a press briefing about whether the U.S. had encountered any evacuees who appear on terror watchlists. "And we deny access to individuals whose derogatory information is not resolved and we do not feel confident in the safety and security of the American people."

Mayorkas was then asked what the U.S. will do with those Afghans who have been evacuated to transit countries but denied entry to the United States due to security concerns.

"We are working with our international allies to address the disposition of those individuals," Mayorkas said.

He did not say whether any Afghans were deemed a security risk after landing in the U.S. or how many of the evacuees had turned up on terror watchlists. Appearing on U.S. terror watchlists or being stopped for questioning does not necessarily mean that individuals pose a risk.

Mayorkas emphasized that the U.S. added another layer of protection by routing evacuees through third party countries such as Qatar, Germany and Spain where they undergo security screening away from the danger and chaos inside Afghanistan but before they are admitted to the U.S.

The United States has sent over 400 federal employees and hundreds of biometric screening machines to those sites, Mayorkas said, and Afghans there are not allowed to board flights to the U.S. until they are cleared. They are also screened again when they arrive in the U.S., before deplaning, he said.

Mayorkas said over 40,000 people have been evacuated to the U.S. since mid-August. Of those, 13 percent are U.S. citizens, 8 percent are lawful permanent residents and 79 percent are Afghans who worked with the U.S. or are part of vulnerable populations, like journalists and female athletes.

A senior State Department official told reporters this week that most Afghans who worked with the U.S. and applied for special visas have not been evacuated. And White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki estimated on Tuesday that between 100 to 200 U.S. citizens who want to leave are still in Afghanistan.

Since the departure of the U.S. military from Afghanistan on Aug. 31, the Kabul airport has remained closed and international nongovernmental organizations have said they're advising vulnerable Afghans still in the country that the borders are too dangerous to cross.

For those Afghan nationals who were evacuated to the U.S., Mayorkas said, most have opted to be temporarily placed at one of eight U.S. military bases where they are given access to legal counsel, counseling, immigration processing and other services before they are eventually resettled into American communities.

Mayorkas said the Biden administration believes "our mission is not accomplished until we have safely evacuated all U.S. citizens who wish to leave Afghanistan, all lawful permanent residents, all individuals who have assisted the United States in Afghanistan."

"This effort will not end until we have achieved that goal," he said.