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OIG: Agencies Struggled to Track Afghan Refugees Who Left Safe Havens Independently

OIG has recommended that DHS ensure U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services identify Afghan evacuees who independently departed safe havens, were not on the Task Force’s list of evacuees to contact, and have not yet completed medical requirements.

The Office of Inspector General (OIG) has found that the Unified Coordination Group (UCG) struggled to track Afghan evacuees who independently departed U.S. military bases designated as safe havens. 

Between August 20, 2021, and February 19, 2022, approximately 85,000 Afghan evacuees were flown to the United States as U.S. troops withdrew and the Taliban assumed control after the fall of the Afghanistan government. Approximately 31,000 Afghan guests had already arrived in the country by August 31, 2021, when the UCG was formed.

Afghan evacuees arrived at U.S. ports of entry located at Washington Dulles and Philadelphia International Airports. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) determined an estimated 12,000 Afghan evacuees had U.S. citizenship or long-term immigration status, including lawful permanent residence or special immigrant visas for assisting the United States in Afghanistan. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) granted the remaining estimated 73,000 evacuees humanitarian parole into the United States, most for two years. The DHS Secretary established the UCG to coordinate efforts to provide Afghan evacuees with temporary housing, vaccinations, a tuberculosis screening, and immigration processing. Evacuees were temporarily housed on military bases in the continental United States, designated as safe havens, until nongovernmental organizations helped resettle them into U.S. communities. However, DHS determined that approximately 11,700 of the evacuees departed the safe havens without resettlement assistance; these departures were called independent departures.

OIG said UCG officials had difficulties documenting when independent departures occurred. Hummingbird, the case tracking system used by UCG officials, was not designed to track independent departures, and OIG found data quality issues including missing data. For example, the data in Hummingbird did not contain departure dates for more than 100 independent departures, while the system listed January 1, 1900, as the departure date for 11 others. Additionally, OIG observed independent departure data fields missing the following: first, middle, and last names; alien registration numbers; contact information; whether the evacuees received independent departure counseling; or whether the evacuees completed medical requirements.

In addition, OIG found that the UCG’s Independent Departure Task Force did not attempt to locate all Afghan evacuees who independently departed safe havens to verify their compliance with parole conditions. These evacuees could face challenges obtaining long-term immigration status due to their failure to comply with parole conditions or to submit immigration applications.

Consequently, OIG has recommended that DHS ensure U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services identify Afghan evacuees who independently departed safe havens, were not on the Task Force’s list of evacuees to contact, and have not yet completed medical requirements; and provide Afghan evacuees with counseling on their parole requirements. DHS concurred but disagreed with OIG’s finding that the UCG Task Force did not attempt to locate all Afghan evacuees who independently departed safe havens to verify their compliance with parole conditions. 

OIG has also reported on the federal effort to resettle vulnerable Afghan evacuees, Operation Allies Welcome (OAW). The watchdog found that the UCG faced two significant challenges leading OAW: the absence of direct funding for most DHS OAW activities during the beginning of the operation and the absence of clear and direct authority for UCG leadership. The UCG was established in August 2021 but OIG found it did not receive direct funding to carry out its mission until December 2021. DHS received $67 million in drawdown authority to assist with OAW in September 2021 but it was not until December 3 that The Further Extending Government Funding Act provided approximately $147 million in direct funding to the UCG for OAW activities.

OIG said these challenges affected the UCG’s coordination of the resettlement process. In particular, the UCG had trouble recruiting staff to support OAW and encountered problems procuring needed supplies and equipment. OIG found that some components were reluctant to fund staff deployments, which limited the number of DHS employees at safe havens. As a result, the watchdog determined that DHS did not deploy enough staff to adequately support OAW at safe havens.

Safe haven officials shared examples of staffing issues at safe havens with OIG, including: repeatedly requesting a social services specialist, but instead having a dentist and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer fulfill the role; needing critical positions such as mental health personnel and pharmacists to be filled, but instead having safe haven personnel obtain and transport medications; being short-staffed and having only 50 individuals providing COVID-19 vaccinations to 8,600 Afghan guests; and at times, having staff whose skill sets were not appropriate, such as using an AmeriCorps college freshman as public affairs staff.

With respect to leading this effort, OIG noted that UCG officials and Federal partners were hindered by unclear lines of authority. During OIG’s evaluation, one UCG official offered a significant lesson learned — the lines of authority need to be spelled out immediately when the organization is established, especially when using drawdown authority funds for specific missions. Recent work from the Department of Defense (DOD) OIG corresponds with DHS OIG’s finding that lines of authority were not always clear. In a March 2022 report, DOD OIG found that DOD “did not have comprehensive memorandums of agreement with DHS, the lead Federal agency overseeing OAW”.

OIG DHS has suggested that Congress could create a contingency fund to allow UCG officials to set up the internal organization, including funding, when directed funding is not available via disaster aid, congressional appropriations, or other means.

DHS has said it is using lessons learned from recent incidents, including OAW, to clarify and institutionalize UCG policies, processes, and capabilities, and will work to implement these improvements, as appropriate, by the end of fiscal year 2023.

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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