By Priscilla Alvarez and Michael Warren, CNN
Stephen Miller seemed floored by the idea, raised during a fall Cabinet meeting in 2018, of keeping open the doors for Afghan allies and other Middle East refugees to enter the US.
“What do you guys want?” Miller, then a top adviser to President Donald Trump, asked incredulously, according to one person in the room. “A bunch of Iraqs and ‘Stans across the country?”
His words stunned many in the meeting, but they were no accident. Under Miller’s guidance, several sources told CNN, the Trump administration was purposefully slow-walking the entry of all refugees — including allies who aided American soldiers in Afghanistan.
Now, after the end of America’s longest war, “the majority” of Afghans who worked for the US during its two-decade military campaign have likely been left behind in Afghanistan, according to State Department estimates, at the mercy of the country’s new Taliban regime. And Republicans are criticizing President Joe Biden for the chaotic withdrawal and for vetting allies too loosely.
But the mayhem in Kabul, as crowds of Afghans tried desperately to flee the country in the final days of August, was due in no small part to the slowdown during the previous administration, according to former officials who argue more allies could have been admitted in the years prior.
The Trump administration’s suspicion of refugees stalled an already cumbersome system of approval for Special Immigrant Visas for Afghan allies, these officials said, and the Biden administration ultimately inherited a significant backlog of more than 17,000 SIV applicants.
The SIV program for Afghan nationals has been plagued with management problems and low annual caps for years leading up to the withdrawal by US forces. But while Congress and the Obama and Biden administrations share some of the blame, the Trump administration — specifically Miller, according to former administration officials — did much to hamper the process long before the US ramped up its efforts to withdraw from the country.
That 2018 White House meeting was one in a series of incidents with Miller and his allies within the administration that stunned officials at the time. But Miller, one of Trump’s most strident anti-immigration advisers, had the President’s ear on refugee policy and wielded considerable power on the issue.
“I can’t understate the sign and impact of the signal Stephen Miller was sending,” a former official told CNN. “You can’t undersell the impact that those folks had on gumming up the system as a whole.”
Miller did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday. Speaking to CNN on Friday, after this story published, he disputed the words attributed to him in the 2018 meeting. He added that he has advocated for resettling refugees within safe countries in their region rather than in the United States.
Among the vocal advocates for the Afghan applicants, said former officials, was James Mattis, then-Defense secretary and a retired four-star Marine general. Multiple Cabinet members and senior staff sought to convey that Afghan allies had put their lives on the line for US troops and that refugees generally were among the most vetted immigrants.
But Miller, the former officials said, was insistent that more security checks were necessary to remain in-line with Trump’s policy of “extreme vetting,” which stemmed from his travel ban on Muslim-majority countries. Miller told CNN on Friday that he pushed for and stands by “holistic” increased visa security screening, which would have affected visa grants for Afghan allies.
‘We were just blown off’
The Trump administration had a “zero risk tolerance approach” to admitting refugees, including those who put their lives on the line for US troops, according to two former administration officials, despite appeals from officials at the time that Afghan allies applying for the special immigrant visa program are heavily vetted.
It was “jarring,” one former official said, when recalling internal White House meetings where Afghans who worked alongside the US government were cast aside.
“Part of what happened was a change in the way derogatory information was assessed. This wasn’t necessarily done in strict orders, but encouragement was given to people doing the vetting to make people ineligible or put aside people for further processing, anyone that had ambiguous information,” the former official told CNN.
The consequence: applicants might be sent to the back of the line if any questions were raised about information pertaining to their application, potentially delaying cases months if not years.
“We did lose time,” the former official added.
As a point of comparison, under the Obama administration, the number of Afghan SIVs issued increased — from 262 in fiscal year 2009 to 3,626 in fiscal year 2016. But under Trump, the number dropped to 1,649 in FY 2018, increased to 2,347 in fiscal year 2019 and culminated in 1,799 for fiscal year 2020.
Trump also slashed the number of refugees allowed to come to the US and put a series of limits in place curtailing who was eligible to arrive, resulting in historically low admissions. A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee their country. While that can also be true for SIV applicants, that program is designed to provide a pathway to the United States for Afghans who were employed by or worked on behalf of the US government.
Current and former officials have stressed the importance of thoroughly vetting refugees and applicants of the special immigrant visa program. While Afghans are thoroughly vetted before working alongside US forces, they still go through a meticulous process riddled with checks before obtaining a visa to come to the US, making them among the most vetted immigrants to arrive in the US.
Former officials said they tried to relay that to the Trump administration but found themselves shut out and starved of resources. Staff-level meetings at the White House about refugees became smaller, with critics of Miller’s approach kept in the dark.
“We were simply asking for justification for the kinds of decisions that seemed to us to be taken on an arbitrary basis,” one former official said. “We were just blown off.”
A program in need of reform
The special immigrant visa program was established in 2009 specifically for Afghan citizens, along with their spouses and unmarried children under 21, who work for the US government in Afghanistan, and who face threats for their allegiance to the US. It was later amended in 2013 to improve efficiency. But challenges remain.
Special immigrant visas “have always been the redheaded stepchild of immigration processes,” an administration official previously told CNN. “Very slow, but little attention to fix.”
A State Department inspector general report released last year found that staffing levels during the interagency and security check process contributed to delays, as well as reliance on multiple information technology systems.
Still, the program was not designed to work in a pressure cooker situation as evidenced over recent weeks. It also didn’t take into account a global pandemic, which led to interviews being temporarily put on pause.
But refugee advocates and veterans argue more should have been done by the Biden administration to prepare for the thousands of Afghan allies who face reprisals, even death, for working for the US, before the withdrawal.
“What we fear is that if our numbers are correct, if there’s some 175,000 people, the SIVs, family members and the P1 and P2 applicants that were left behind,” said Matt Zeller, an Afghanistan veteran, referring to refugee programs open to fleeing Afghans. “We estimate this could take the better part of the next 10 years. That’s even if we can get them out alive.”
Faiza Sayed, director of the Safe Harbor Clinic, told CNN that the State Department and Department of Homeland Security, which oversee the SIV program, “could, but have failed to speed up the process.”
A senior State Department official told reporters this week that in the early stages of the evacuation the US tried to prioritize access for late-stage SIV applicants and other categories, but said the effort was unsuccessful because “every credential we tried to provide electronically was immediately disseminated to the widest possible pool.”
“Every day was a constant improvisational effort to figure out what was going to work that day,” they said. “As we got deeper into the process, we unfortunately had to start prioritizing the people to whom we had a legal obligation first and foremost, and that was our fellow American citizens.”
In late July, the Senate passed provisions of a bill to streamline the SIV program and expand the number of authorized visas.
“The expedited effort to clear my legislation with Senator Ernst and rapidly process SIV applicants is partly in response to the Trump administration’s failure to process SIV applications, which let the program languish for years,” Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a longtime proponent of the program and co-sponsor of the bill, told CNN in a statement, referring to her work with Iowa Republican Joni Ernst.
Some elected Republicans — primarily veterans like Ernst — have been vocal about expediting the SIV process and aiding Afghans who worked with American service members. But while efforts have been made to speed up processing to meet the urgent need, Republicans have had little to say about the Trump administration’s culpability.
Many GOP lawmakers and opinion leaders continue to urge caution on vetting. With Trump out of office and Miller no longer in the White House, the concerns about potential security threats of Afghan allies remains a talking point in conservative media, underscoring the former administration’s influence on the right.
Fox News host Laura Ingraham, for instance, warned her viewers on August 16 about a vague threat from “potentially unvetted refugees from Afghanistan.”
And in an interview with the conservative Spectator magazine published August 27, Miller himself repeated his view that resettling refugees from places like Afghanistan threatens national security.
“When you have large pockets of migration from places where jihadist ideology is prevalent, it can easily create the conditions where large numbers of people, especially young people, can become radicalized or swept up into a radical fervor,” he said.
Days later, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley sent a letter to the Biden administration seeking more information on the vetting process.
This story has been updated with comments from Stephen Miller.
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