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On-the-Record Press Call by Senior Deputy Advisor Russ Travers and Ambassador Tracey Jacobson on Operation Allies Refuge

July 29, 2021

Via Teleconference

10:01 A.M. EDT

MS. HORNE: Good morning, everyone. Thanks for joining us today. Today's call will be on the record, and its contents will be embargoed until 5:00 a.m. Eastern Time tomorrow -- that's Friday, July 30th.

Our speakers today are going to be Senior Deputy Homeland Security Advisor Russ Travers from the National Security Council and Ambassador Tracey Jacobson from the State Department Afghanistan Coordination Task Force.

Russ, we'll turn it over to you to get started. Thank you.

MR. TRAVERS: Okay. Thanks, Emily. And thanks all for joining. As Emily said, my name is Russ Travers. I'm the Senior Deputy Homeland Security Advisor at the NSC.

So I think you know, on the 14th of July, the White House announced Operation Allies Refuge that would support relocations of interested and eligible Afghan nationals and their families who have supported the government and are in the SIV application pipeline. This is not a new program. Helping the brave Afghans who have supported our work in Afghanistan has been a long bipartisan priority in Washington.

The original NDAA authorization for Special Immigrant Visas from Iraq and Afghanistan -- it was actually passed under the second Bush administration; it was re-upped in both the Obama and the Trump administrations; and we welcome strong bipartisan support for SIVs in Congress today, including the recent passage in the House of legislation in support of streamlining the application process and increasing the overall numbers of visas authorized.

Since President Biden's announcement this April that U.S. forces would be leaving Afghanistan, the administration's immediate focus has been on interested and eligible Afghan nationals and their families who have supported the U.S. and our partners in Afghanistan and are in the SIV application pipeline.

I am immensely proud to announce our first group of Afghan special immigrants to be relocated under Operation Allies Refuge is now on their way to America. This flight represents a fulfillment of the U.S. commitment and honors these Afghans' brave service in helping support our mission in Afghanistan, in turn helping to keep our country safe.

America has a longstanding tradition of welcoming refugees and others to the United States. We, alongside our civil society partners and tens of thousands of volunteers across our nation, look forward to welcoming these friends and partners to their new communities in the United States.

They have all completed rigorous security background checks conducted by the intelligence community and the Departments of State and Homeland Security. And they now join the over 70,000 Afghans who have received SIVs and started new lives in the U.S. since 2008.

Their arrival is the culmination of an enormous effort across the U.S. government and one that is a high moment of our careers. So many of us have deep, personal connections here, whether we served at Embassy Kabul, worked alongside these Afghans as diplomats or servicemembers, or worked to advance the Afghan peace process.

It is important to emphasize that our first priority is relocating to the United States about 700 Afghan principal SIV applicants and their immediate families who have completed the majority of the process including a thorough background check.

Including family members, we estimate there will be approximately 2,500 Afghans in this group, and we have something over 200 people on this first flight, principal applicants and their families.

Once these Afghan special immigrants are paroled into the U.S. and complete a medical exam as required by law, they will be resettled to cities across the country with assistance through the United States Refugee Admissions Program. We expect to continue relocating applicants and their families over the course of a few weeks.

In closing, I want to emphasize that the safety and privacy of these brave individuals and their families has been the North Star during this entire process. Accordingly, we are not going to speak to any details about the routes or timing of their transit. You can appreciate that they are in the midst of a long, very grueling journey, and our focus right now is on welcoming them safely and protecting details that may impact the travel of future SIV arrivals.

And, with that, I'll turn thing over to Ambassador Jacobson for more detail on the State-Department-headed interagency task force.

AMBASSADOR JACOBSON: Good morning everyone. On behalf of all the members of the task force, I want to say how honored and privileged we are to be working as part of the overall interagency effort on this important process.

We launched this task force last Monday to bring together the expertise and the individuals from across the interagency to meet the President's initial instruction to start relocating Afghans -- Special Immigrant Visa applicants -- before the end of July, but also to work together to find efficiencies to innovate, to streamline the process going forward to maximize the number of people that we will be able to relocate.

And on our team, it's not just the State Department. We also have Department of Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, and, of course, the Department of Defense.

I think Russ has said most of what we have on the process, but just so you know, this initial group that we're talking about of 700-plus principal applicants and their families that we're bringing through, through this process, have undergone extensive screening. They are at the very end of the immigrant visa process, lacking only a couple of steps that we will be performing at Fort Lee.

They have all been COVID tested. They've had a fitness-to-fly exam. And we have offered vaccines in Kabul to those who are interested in having them, and we will also be offering those vaccines at Fort Lee.

So, at Fort Lee, they will need a medical clearance, as required by DHS, to grant them immigrant status. And that's what will be happening at Fort Lee -- is that medical and the DHS processing.

And then we're working with our partner, IOM, which will relocate people around the country. They'll be taking information from them -- the travelers. When they have particular connections in the United States -- family or other connections -- IOM will look to resettle them in those locations. And otherwise, they will go where IOM has capacity, with assistance through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program under the State Department Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.

We're going to continue to work on this. We will continue to relocate eligible SIV applicants and their families who have our gratitude for their service.

I also want to underscore that the U.S. partnership with Afghanistan is continuing. As Secretary Blinken said, "even as we're withdrawing our forces, we're remaining very much engaged in Afghanistan: supporting the government, economic assistance, development assistance, assistance for the security forces, and diplomacy to try to bring the parties together for a peaceful resolution of the conflict."

Our Consular Section in Kabul is going to continue processing SIVs. So we're very much looking forward to our Afghan colleagues taking their first steps as new immigrants in our country and very pleased to join today on this call.

MS. HORNE: Thank you. Operator, we're ready for some questions now.

Q: Thank you very much. A question about the other Afghans -- womens leaders, human rights leaders, educators. Is there any plan being considered to evacuate other people who are being targeted and can be targeted by the Taliban if they want to leave beyond the SIV program?

MR. TRAVERS: Well, as you suggest, Andrea, the SIV program is statutory. It has very specific requirements and would not cover many of these individuals. However, U.S. Embassy Kabul can make referrals to the U.S. Refugee Admission Program for any Afghans who are well known to the embassy and have both imminent and compelling protection concerns.

And this would, by definition, include women's leaders, activists, human rights defenders, civil society, and journalists. So, there is that program available.

Q: Hi, I'd like to follow up on Andrea's question. The administration has been considering doing or creating an equivalent of what -- of the programs for Iraqis that has been suspended. It was for, I guess -- I can't remember the exact term, but it's a special visa; it's not an SIV.

The Iraqi program was suspended because of a fraud investigation that is still going on. I'm wondering if the administration is still considering creating the second category of visas for Afghans who do not meet the SIV requirements, but are U.S affiliated and under threat or other Afghans who are also under threat from the Taliban, particularly women, women pilots -- that kind of person.

MR. TRAVERS: Do you want to answer, Tracey? Want me to?

AMBASSADOR JACOBSON: Sure, just to say that it's true the administration is considering a variety of different options, and we'll have more on that for you in the future. Nothing on that today.

Q: Hi. Thanks very much for doing the call. (Inaudible) kind of a logistical question. How long will (inaudible) the refugee program? I mean, obviously, we would very much like to speak with them and do stories, which I gather isn't going to happen at Fort Lee. But I'd like any information you can provide about access -- media access (inaudible) these folks in the coming weeks.

AMBASSADOR JACOBSON: So, excuse me, you cut out during that call a little bit, but I think what you were asking is how long do we expect them to be at Fort Lee and can you speak to the applicants afterwards. So, that's the question I'm going to answer, and if it was a different question, I apologize.

Q: Yes. No, no, that's it. Thank you.

AMBASSADOR JACOBSON: Okay. So, this is the first time we're doing this, and it's a sort of big lift for State PRM, for DHS, and for the NGO colleagues that are working with us to process these medical exams and the DHS adjustment of status. We're looking at about seven days. We hope, over time, to shorten that. But that is our planning horizon for this first flight, and we'll see how it goes, and we will learn from the experience of this first flight and apply it to future flights.

In terms of engaging with these individuals, you know, they're entitled to their privacy. If any of them express an interest in speaking to the media -- and some of them may -- we will work to hook you up.

But we're not going to ask them to speak to the media given that these folks have, in recent days, left their entire lives behind and immigrated to the United States with just their luggage. So, we're going to let them settle in and resettle. But if any of them are keen to talk to you, we'll let you know.

Q: Hi, there. Yeah, thanks for holding the call. A couple of questions about the folks who are still left behind in Afghanistan. I've spoken with people in the process who say that they have a dangerous road between where they live and getting to Kabul. They don't know, if they go to Kabul, how many -- how long they'll have to wait, if they'll have to go back to their dangerous home province.

Is there any support being offered for them once they get to Kabul so they can stay there? And are you still considering an option of just expediting all of these applicants out to Guam or another safe area where the processing can continue and they won't be in danger from the Taliban advances?

AMBASSADOR JACOBSON: I'll take that one, Russ, if you like.

MR. TRAVERS: Sure, go ahead.

AMBASSADOR JACOBSON: We're going be moving folks as fast as we logistically can. We do lack the capacity to bring people to Kabul from other parts of the country or to house them in Kabul itself.

While we're focused on this initial group of applicants who are very far along in their SIV process, bringing them to the United States, we are also looking, in the coming weeks, to start moving people who are less farther along to a third-country location so that they can be safe while their visa processing continues. And those individuals, when they finish that processing, will be brought to the United States.

That's what I have for you now on that.

Q: Thank you so much for holding this call and for taking my question. What advice do you have for SIVs in Afghanistan who haven't heard anything yet? Is there someone they can contact? Should they be reaching out to the embassy?

And I have two follow-ups. One is: Did you say there are 750 or 250 on the flight? And then how long after the pullout of troops will you continue with this program?

AMBASSADOR JACOBSON: So, I do apologize -- there were three questions there. As to the exact number on the flight, it is just over 200. It's not 250. We don't want to get into exact details, but, you know, we initially manifest the flight, and then, of course, some people who test positive for COVID are not allowed to fly, and they will have to quarantine and isolate in accordance with CDC guidelines before we will put them on another flight.

We absolutely intend to continue this program after the pullout of troops. In terms of who people can contact, it's the same organization that they contact with regards to their SIV. It's -- the National Visa Center is the organization that fields inquiries from applicants.

MR. TRAVERS: And I would just add that the 700-plus is the cohort that we're talking about of SIVs who are at this relevant stage -- have had all their security vetting -- so it's they and their families that will be looking to relocate over the coming days and weeks.

MS. HORNE: All right, thank you, everyone. That concludes our call. Reminder that the contents are embargoed until 5:00 a.m., tomorrow, Friday morning. And we are on the record today.

Thanks all.

10:17 A.M. EDT

Joseph R. Biden, On-the-Record Press Call by Senior Deputy Advisor Russ Travers and Ambassador Tracey Jacobson on Operation Allies Refuge Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/351328

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