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On-the-Record Press Call with the Regional Reporters Association by White House Coordinator for Operation Allies Welcome Jack Markell and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas on Operation Allies Welcome

September 24, 2021

Via Teleconference

10:04 A.M. EDT

MS. DALTON: Thank you, Alan. And good morning, everybody. Thanks for joining today's briefing call with White House Coordinator for Operation Allies Welcome Jack Markell and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

Coordinator Markell and Secretary Mayorkas will offer a brief overview today of where we are with Operation Allies Welcome and then be glad to take your questions on the resettlement process for arriving Afghans.

And just to be clear on the ground rules at the outset, the contents of this call are on the record and embargoed for the conclusion of the call.

Finally, I just wanted to thank Regional Reporters Association President Sarah Wire for working with us to organize today's briefing with you all.

With that, I'll turn it over to Governor Markell.

GOVERNOR MARKELL: Thank you, Olivia. And good to be with Secretary Mayorkas, who is just an incredible partner in all of this.

As a former governor, and as the former chair of the National Governor's Association, I'm especially glad to be speaking with all of you about Operation Allies Welcome. And that's because I've learned -- I've communicated with state and local leaders, with regional media, and with Americans all across the country -- about how we're approaching the resettlements of our Afghan allies safely and successfully into the fabric of our society is just incredibly important.

Before taking your questions, I want to explain a little bit about what I'm doing here at the White House.

The President has asked me to serve as White House Coordinator for Operation Allies Welcome to ensure that we're taking a whole-of-America approach to safely and securely and effectively welcoming our Afghan allies, as well as Afghans at risk.

In partnership with the National Security Council team at the White House, I'll coordinate the administration's resettlement policy development and catalyze its efforts to work with state and local officials, with the private sector, veteran service organizations, non-governmental organizations, and the like.

I'm working closely with Secretary Mayorkas and with the Department of Homeland Security's Senior Response Official Bob Fenton, who is just also extraordinary. They are really the lead agency officials on aspects of the interagency work on resettlement. And their work has been tireless, and I really appreciate their partnership.

Our paramount goal through Operation Allies Welcome is to create a safe, dignified, and orderly process for resettling our Afghan allies, and to be a strong partner to everyone and to every organization that wants to help.

The response from across the country has been overwhelming. We've seen that Americans are proud of so many Afghans who've supported us over the past 20 years in Afghanistan, and believe that they deserve our support in return.

And we have begun to witness an incredible outpouring of support from veterans, from bipartisan leaders, the faith community, private sector companies, the Afghan American diaspora, and Americans across the country.

They know that our Afghan allies will strengthen our communities, as refugees and immigrants always have, bringing new life, new energy, and new ideas to the places that they'll now call home.

I also want to emphasize -- and I know this is front of mind for Secretary Mayorkas -- that the administration has established a number of strong screening and vetting and public health measures to keep both our citizens and our allies alike as safe as possible.

I'll conclude by saying that this is a historic undertaking. I'm proud of the thousands of service members and government professionals, state and local leaders, resettlement agencies, NGOs, and volunteers working around the clock on Operation Allies Welcome.

And so, with that, I'm very happy to turn it over to Secretary Mayorkas for some introductory remarks as well.

SECRETARY MAYORKAS: Thanks so very much, Governor. And thanks, everyone, for joining us and giving us this opportunity to provide information to you.

And let me just share my personal and professional pride in having the opportunity, at this point, to work with Governor Markell, who has stepped in to lead this effort across the country and is making this effort shine.

We, in the department, are so proud to work with the Governor, and we are honored to serve as the lead federal agency coordinating efforts across the federal government to welcome vulnerable Afghans to our nation in a way that's consistent with our laws and our values.

This mission really does reflect the best of who we are as a country. And we're honored by the trust the President has placed in us.

We have undertaken -- the United States has undertaken an historic airlift of U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, Afghans who hold Special Immigrant Visas, and vulnerable Afghans and their families.

We have put in place, as the Governor mentioned, a robust, multi-layered screening and vetting process. This department deployed approximately 400 personnel -- from Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Transportation Security Administration, United States Coast Guard, and the United States Secret Service, to Bahrain, Germany, Kuwait, Italy, Qatar, Spain, and the United Arab Emirates -- to conduct processing, screening, and vetting in coordination with the Departments of Defense and State and other federal agencies, to include the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the National Counterterrorism Center, and additional intelligence community partners.

All of us screen and vet individuals involving biometric and biographic information. And we conduct this screening and vetting with our professionals who are expert in the process.

If someone fails these checks while they are still overseas, they will not be permitted to board a flight to the United States. In addition, all vulnerable Afghans are required to undergo the same process as other persons arriving from outside the U.S., namely additional inspection upon arrival and a secondary inspection as the circumstances require.

If, upon landing in the United States, further security vetting at the port of entry raises any concern about a person, Customs and Border Protection has the authority to not grant them entry into the United States.

I should also add that the screening and vetting process is a recurrent one -- ongoing.

We are also undertaking extensive COVID-19 and other public health precautions consistent with the Centers for Disease Control guidance. All arrivals -- U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, and Afghan nationals -- are being tested for COVID-19 upon arriving in the United States. Afghan nationals who are paroled into the United States -- the means by which we admit them here are humanitarian discretionary authority -- are required to take the vaccinations for MMR, measles, mumps, rubella, polio, and COVID-19, amongst others, as conditions of their humanitarian parole.

U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents who have arrived are returning directly to their home communities.

The Department of Defense is providing temporary housing facilities for SIV applicants and other vulnerable Afghans at eight installations: Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia; Fort Pickett, Virginia; Fort Lee, Virginia; Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico; Fort McCoy, Wisconsin; Fort Bliss, Texas; Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey; and Camp Atterbury, Indiana.

From there, each family will be connected with resettlement organizations to help them begin their new lives here in America. And Governor Markell is leading an extraordinary effort with state and local officials, non-profit organizations -- all of civil society.

And in that regard, I must say two things: Number one, it's an extraordinary sign of unity across America, in our outstretched arms, to demonstrate to these individuals and to the world who we are and our proudest traditions.

And I want to say something about the Afghan nationals who arrived. I was at Fort Lee, and I spoke with the soldiers there, all of whom consider this to be one of the greatest honors of their lives. And they spoke of the fact that, when a bus arrives from Dulles International with Afghan nationals on it and people offboard the bus, the children are handed a flag of the United States of America. And the fathers -- their fathers instinctively place a hand over their hearts in gratitude and in reverence for what this country has done for them: saved them, provided them a place of refuge and a new home.

And with that, I'll turn it over for questions.

MS. DALTON: Thank you, Secretary Mayorkas and Governor Markell. Alan, I think we're ready to take some questions.

Q: Hi, thank you both for doing this call. Philadelphia airport is one of the airports receiving flights of evacuees -- or has received those flights. And as you mentioned, Fort Dix is one of the bases that are hosting people as they wait for placement. I was wondering if you could tell us why that airport was chosen, why that base. And is there something specific to the Philadelphia region that makes it, you know, suitable for this purpose?

And then, secondly, can you tell us how many people have arrived at Philadelphia airport so far and how many have stayed in the Philadelphia region? Thank you.

SECRETARY MAYORKAS: So, thanks very much for that question. And I can speak to the selection of the Philadelphia airport. Operational facility is really why we selected that, both with respect to our capacity here in Customs and Border Protection's Office of Field Operations ability to work at the airport for the ease of the processing of the Afghan nationals who are arriving, number one; and number two, its proximity, in fact, to one of the facilities -- the Department of Defense -- and that made it most efficient.

We have received, I believe, approximately 12,000 Afghan nationals at the Philadelphia airport. And we are, of course, still working on their resettlement in the country. And I'll turn to see if Governor Markell has any thoughts in that regard. Thank you.

GOVERNOR MARKELL: Yeah. So, let me say, first of all, we've -- we're very appreciative that Governor Wolf has been, you know, so supportive, frankly, as governors across the country have been at welcoming our allies.

He -- and he said, you know, the state "has long served as a refuge for those seeking peace and stability amid crisis and we'll continue to help in any way possible." And that is a -- you know, it's terrific, and I think it reflects the spirit -- the generous spirit of the people from Pennsylvania.

In terms of the Fort Dix part, it's one of a number of bases all across the country. Texas, Indiana, Wisconsin, Virginia are some of the others.

So I think the Secretary explained we -- you know, originally, a lot of the folks were coming in through Dulles, but now a lot of that activity has switched to Philadelphia, which will be the main hub for a bit longer.

Q: Hi, thank you both for doing this call. Secretary Mayorkas, some Afghan interpreters who worked for the U.S. military say that they were blacklisted arbitrarily by the contract companies that had hired them for reasons including mixing up Afghan and U.S. calendars and missing a flight. And now those interpreters don't qualify for SIV, despite the support of their military supervisors. And many of them are either stuck in Afghanistan or have fled to other countries where they don't qualify for a path to citizenship. Is this an issue that DHS is aware of? And is any solution being sought for those who have been arbitrarily blacklisted?

SECRETARY MAYORKAS: So, individuals have not been arbitrarily blacklisted. I would respectfully disagree. In fact, when I was at Fort Lee, I met with an immigration officer who had served in Afghanistan in 2009, in 2010, had kept in touch with his interpreter over the ensuing years, and had the privilege at Fort Lee to process the immigration paperwork of his interpreter and the interpreter's family.

We have, in fact, processed quite a number of individuals who supported our military. And we have the means of learning of any issues, with respect to individuals who are having difficulty accessing our evacuation efforts, which I should say are ongoing. And this is an enduring commitment to make sure that we are able to assist individuals remaining in Afghanistan who want and need to leave.

So I'll look forward to following up on that, and I certainly will. Thank you.

Q: Hi, thanks. I have a couple questions. One thing I've heard from both the community -- obviously we have a large Afghan community in the Bay Area -- both the folks who have already come back and the members of Congress who are helping them is: There is still a large number of Americans or, you know, affiliated with Americans, family members still stuck in Afghanistan and are very concerned about those individuals. And I'm wondering if there's any updates on how you're still going about trying to get those folks out.

And then, secondly, a lot of these individuals are not coming here with a particular status. They're being granted, you know, some forms of parole, and there's concern about their long-term stability in the U.S. without being able to access various things that require a more concrete form of status. And I'm curious if there are any further updates on trying to reconcile that, you know, status issue for many of these individuals.

SECRETARY MAYORKAS: Yes. If I may, I'll take that. The effort to bring those in Afghanistan, those American citizens who want to leave -- the commitment to bring each and every one to the United States remains and is lasting. We have case managers assigned to any of those individuals. And we are working in an all-of-government effort to actually bring them to the United States. That is unrelenting. Number one.

We are also very mindful of the fact that individuals who have arrived here, who are paroled in, have lawful presence and do not have necessarily an enduring solution with respect to their status. However, we have proposed legislation to grant them the functional status of refugees for the purpose of providing them with a preliminary level of sustenance that will assist in their resettlement, on the one hand. And on the other, they are able to apply for asylum and develop a path in that manner.

Thank you.

Q: If I may just ask a follow-up. When you say the effort to bring "American citizens who want to leave," what does that mean for people who might have a PR status or, you know, vulnerable family members?

SECRETARY MAYORKAS: I'm sorry. It's a great, great point -- a great follow-up because I didn't mean to be restrictive to United States citizens. That includes other populations, such as those whom you've mentioned.

Thank you.

GOVERNOR MARKELL: This is Jack Markell. Let me just add a couple of points. First of all, you mentioned conversations with Afghan Americans. We had a terrific call yesterday with the Afghan American diaspora from across the country and are so grateful to them for, you know, not just being at the table, but for really taking a lead.

I also want to mention, sort of along the lines of the immigration status and sort of reiterate a point that the Secretary just made: So, we are very focused on doing everything we can to help make sure that people who come over, not with the SIV status but who have been paroled in, get the same level of benefits, including access to the federal benefits, including support from our ORR -- Refugee Resettlement -- and which is why, several weeks ago, the White House sent to Congress a package to achieve exactly that. We are hopeful that that will happen because that'll make, really, a huge difference for those individuals.

The other thing I think might be helpful is just giving you a sense of a -- you know, some of the folks who came not with the SIV status and why that might be. And so, I have been -- in the last couple of weeks, I went to Fort Dix in New Jersey; I was at Quantico earlier this week; also went to one of the resettlement agencies earlier this week in Northern Virginia.

So, I've had a chance to meet a lot of people, including people who I would just walk up to at Quantico, just, you know, to understand their stories.

So, here are a couple of examples: I met a woman who was a doctor with USAID in Afghanistan. She did not realize that the eligibility period to get an SIV had been shortened to a year, so she was one month short of the prior two-year requirement to apply. So this is, first, somebody who was absolutely deserving of SIV but came into the country without that status. And we're looking to change that.

Another guy I met had worked with us for more than five years, clearly qualified for SIV, never bothered to apply for it because, frankly, he never imagined leaving his mother in Afghanistan. But when it became unsafe for him to stay, he decided to come. So it's another example of somebody who is entitled to SIV.

And so -- and there are a lot -- there are just an incredible number of stories like that, and I think it provides some valuable context to understand who many of these folks are.

Q: Hi, thank you very much. Mr. Secretary or Governor, we had 75 Afghan children arrive in Chicago a few days ago. Question one: When will the next arrivals come? Will they be children? Is this part of the 830 -- or 860 that we're told number of refugees who are in the first wave? And I have a quick follow-up.

GOVERNOR MARKELL: All right. I don't know all the answers. Let me -- let me tell you what I do know, and then, Secretary, you might be able to add to that.

So, specifically to your question about when will additional folks arrive, let me -- because you asked sort of what the -- when will that be, and I think you asked about the process.

So --

Q: I want to know first when. Can you just tell me if it's soon? Today? And then I want to hear about process.

GOVERNOR MARKELL: Yeah, so, I don't know that it's going to be today. And I sort of have to explain the process to sort of -- to answer the timing as well in the following way:

So, we have -- we have, you know, 50,000 -- a little more than 50,000 people at the military bases in the United States -- military bases, as the Secretary mentioned earlier -- and we have more people, another 12- or 13,000, coming in early October from the military bases in Europe.

And so, then, the real -- so the question is, how do those folks then get resettled into communities across the country? That is a process that involves the nine major resettlement agencies across the country who then have a couple hundred of affiliates -- again, all over the country.

The decisions about where these individuals will be resettled is made by the local affiliates in consultation with the local community. How many kids can be supported in the school? What's --

Q: Right. But we know that. Only because we don't have a lot of time, bear with me, okay? But DHS does have a capacity to know, as well -- I know, and I am dealing with the people in the state of Illinois. I want to know what you know and what you can tell us about what your -- what the agencies in Illinois who are on the ground are going to be dealing with. If you don't know, that's fine; I'll move on.

SECRETARY MAYORKAS: Let me -- let me -- Governor, may I -- may I jump in and -- ma'am, let me -- I'm not familiar with the number that you mentioned of unaccompanied children that -- the figure that I have is 58.

And let me explain to you why --

Q: Oh, really? That's (inaudible) it's 58? Okay.

SECRETARY MAYORKAS: But that's -- that's the information that I have. And it is my understanding that that flight, which was to Illinois, was an exception. And that exception was made because these children already had sponsors identified in the United States. And that was operationally the most facile way to seek -- to obtain the reunification of these children, or the unification of these children with their sponsors.

Q: Okay. That makes sense. Okay. These are exc- -- see, it would be nice to know this. Please. This is vital information to tell reporters in the area so we can explain the story. Please, as we go through this, this is vital that this is the exception here.

Okay. Question two. Governor Pritzker -- this is a welcoming state -- can do more than the 860. He could do thousands more, but he wants federal help. What's the story on federal help coming to Illinois?

GOVERNOR MARKELL: Well, I mean, the story -- and again, I mean, the federal help, as we've discussed it with the resettlement agencies, is largely around the passage of the additional benefits for people who are being paroled into the country. And that's, as I mentioned earlier, the access to federal benefits like Medicaid, SNAP, TANF, assistance from the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

We are quite hopeful that that is going to pass, you know, shortly in Congress. And that will be a significant additional help. But we do expect when that passes, that the numbers that states across the country have identified as being what they can accommodate, we do expect that that will go up.

SECRETARY MAYORKAS: And there's something very important also that the Governor has really spearheaded that complements that, which is -- and something to which we both referred -- which is the civil society effort that is underway. Speaking -- both the Governor and I have spoken with business leaders, community-based organizations that have offered their assistance and, in fact, already begun to execute on that assistance, whether it's finding jobs and matching Afghan nationals with employment opportunities, to working on housing and other sustenance needs.

Thank you.

GOVERNOR MARKELL: In fact, let me point you to Welcome.US, which is a civil society effort that has been stood up, bipartisan, and it's a place where Americans across the country can go to sign up to extend their offer to sponsor families, to give money, to do all kinds of things, and we're very appreciative of that effort.

OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, due to time constraints, we have no further time for questions. However, questions that were not answered, can be provided by email to Sarah Wire so we can follow up.

We'll turn it back over to your host for closing.

MS. DALTON: Thanks, Alan. And just to clarify, if we didn't get to your question today, I will give my -- make sure to give my email to Sarah Wire so that folks can direct those to us here in the -- in Governor Markell's office, and we'll make sure to follow up with you individually.

So, thank you again for joining today's call and look forward to staying in touch.


10:35 A.M. EDT

Joseph R. Biden, On-the-Record Press Call with the Regional Reporters Association by White House Coordinator for Operation Allies Welcome Jack Markell and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas on Operation Allies Welcome Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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