U.S. Customs and Border Protection “did not always have critical data to properly screen, vet, or inspect” Afghan evacuees arriving as part of Operation Allies Refuge (OAR)/Operation Allies Welcome (OAW) and admitted at least two people “who may have posed a risk to national security,” the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General said.
But DHS did not concur with OIG’s recommendations to improve screening and vetting of Afghan evacuees and prepare for similar situations in the future, noting that they were part of an interagency emergency response and arguing that the expulsion of the two Afghans in question “is indicative of a vetting system that works as designed.”
More than 79,000 Afghans arrived in the United States between July 2021 and January 2022 as part of the DHS-led operations to evacuate Afghans from the Taliban takeover. OIG audited the screening, vetting, and inspection of evacuees through meeting with more than 130 DHS officials, the inspector general said in a new report.
“We determined some information used to vet evacuees through U.S. Government databases, such as name, date of birth, identification number, and travel document data, was inaccurate, incomplete, or missing,” OIG said. “We also determined CBP admitted or paroled evacuees who were not fully vetted into the United States.”
“We attribute DHS’ challenges to not having: (1) a list of Afghan evacuees who were unable to provide sufficient identification documents; (2) a contingency plan to support similar emergency situations; and (3) standardized policies. As a result, DHS may have admitted or paroled individuals into the United States who pose a risk to national security and the safety of local communities.”
While Afghan nationals and their immediate family members spent sometimes years in the Special Immigrant Visa application pipeline, OAR/OAW accelerated the process to rely on CBP screening at a port of entry. While the SIV program rendered decisions through USCIS and the State Department, OAR/OAW made that a discretionary decision by CBP. Interview requirements were not in place until December 2021 for OAR/OAW, while the Afghan SIV process has required an in-person interview. The SIV program gave Afghans admitted a path to lawful permanent residency, while no such pathway was included in the OAR/OAW program.
The breakdown of arrivals from Afghanistan through April 19 was 37,276 minors, 28,766 adult males, and 18,690 adult females. CBP granted parole to about 72,550 of the more than 79,000 Afghan evacuees who arrived between July 2021 and January 2022, OIG noted.
During screening at the “lily pads,” locations outside of Afghanistan where evacuation flights stopped before onward travel to the United States, Defense Department and CBP personnel collected facial images and fingerprints for individuals ages 14 to 79 who were not LPRs or U.S. citizens, and gathered biographic data on all travelers. Where they submitted that data is redacted in the report. That information was then vetted to ensure the person did not have any red flags in U.S. databases.
Those who cleared both stages were put on flight manifests to a U.S. port of entry; CBP conducted pre-flight vetting of the flight manifests. Other partners redacted in the report “supported additional security vetting,” OIG said. Once at a port of entry, the evacuees would undergo CBP inspection of travel documents and data. “As they would under normal primary inspection procedures, CBP officers referred any evacuees with unresolved issues, including potential matches to derogatory information, to secondary inspection, during which officers conduct interviews and additional research to determine the individual’s admissibility,” the report noted. “Evacuees who did not clear secondary inspection were found to be inadmissible and detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), pending removal proceedings.”
In January, OIG issued DHS a Notice of Findings and Recommendations document “notifying the Department of the urgent need to take action to address security risks of evacuees from Afghanistan who were admitted or paroled into the United States without sufficient identification documents to ensure proper screening and vetting.” The OIG also “currently has multiple ongoing reviews, as well as one completed review related to DHS’ resettlement of Afghan nationals in the United States.”
OIG determined that “CBP admitted or paroled evacuees who had questionable names and dates of birth partly due to cultural differences”; some Afghans only use one name and exact birthdates are not always known.
“One CBP official discussed how evacuees at the lily pads did not always know their DOB, and without a verification document to cross-check against, the official simply entered the evacuee’s biographic information as told by the individual,” the report states. “For example, if an evacuee stated he/she was 20 years old, the DOB most likely assigned was January 1, 2001. Several CBP officials said they often had to rely on translators or interpreters to identify evacuees’ names and DOBs.”
In a review of 88,977 TECS records, OIG found that 417 records had first name unknown or “FNU,” 242 records had last name unknown or “LNU,” and 11,110 records had the date of birth recorded as “January 1.” In reviewing travel document data, 36,400 records had “facilitation document” as the document type — “however, during the audit, CBP could not define or provide an explanation for this document type, indicating potential inaccuracies” — and 7,800 records had invalid or missing document numbers.
“During the audit, when we requested a list of individuals admitted or paroled without proper identification, CBP officials responded that they did not maintain such a list,” OIG said.
According to CBP’s data in March, the agency allowed 35 Afghan evacuees to fly to the United States “although they had not received a green status clearing them to travel”; green status meant that they did not have a potential match to derogatory information in the vetting process. CBP also did not collect biometrics (fingerprints) for 1,299 evacuees before travel to the United States.
“In August 2022, CBP provided additional information asserting all 35 Afghan evacuees noted above received a green status when they arrived in the United States,” the report continues. “At the same time, CBP provided additional information related to the 1,299 Afghan evacuees noted above, in which CBP asserted: 120 were biometrically enrolled prior to departing the lily pad; 1,127 were enrolled at the U.S. POE; 22 were enrolled after arrival; 23 were not enrolled; and 7 were out of scope due to data inaccuracies in the original data set provided.”
The OIG report gave this example of a vetting issue: “CBP paroled one evacuee into the United States who had been liberated from prison in Afghanistan by the Taliban in August 2021. The individual cleared lily pad screening and vetting processes and flew to the United States. At the U.S. POE, CBP officers identified derogatory information during the primary inspection. However, a supervisor ‘unreferred’ the individual and paroled the individual into the country without a secondary inspection. Although the supervisor acted within policy, we could not determine whether the supervisor was aware of the evacuee’s prior incarceration. Approximately 3 weeks after this evacuee’s parole, the FBI obtained derogatory information. Subsequently, ICE removed this individual from the United States.”
DHS officials “attributed screening and vetting issues to the time constraints” at the midpoints before travel to the U.S., and “CBP officials also attributed screening and vetting issues to the language barrier, Afghans not knowing their personal data, and the lack of automated systems,” the report states. “…In some cases, staff had to manually enter evacuees’ data from photographs of handwritten flight manifests, which could cause delays receiving vetting results as well as errors in the information collected.”
“Although this was an unprecedented humanitarian event, CBP was aware that evacuees might arrive without sufficient documentation. Yet, CBP did not develop a backup plan for validating the identity of Afghan evacuees entering the United States at the POEs,” OIG said. “Additionally, DHS did not have formal screening and vetting policies to support OAW. Instead, during the initial months of OAW, DHS officials said screening and vetting requirements were decided on an ad hoc basis. DHS and CBP did not have standardized formal policy documents and instead could only provide informal flowcharts, meeting minutes, and draft documents.”
OIG concluded that DHS and CBP “paroled at least two individuals into the United States who may have posed a risk to national security and the safety of local communities and may have admitted or paroled more individuals of concern.”
The inspector general recommended that CBP “immediately identify evacuees from Afghanistan who are in the United States and provide evidence of full screening and vetting based on confirmed identification – especially for those who did not have documentation,” and “ensure recurrent vetting processes established for all paroled evacuees are carried out for the duration of their parole period.” DHS should “develop a comprehensive contingency plan to support similar emergency situations in the future and account for, screen, vet, and inspect all individuals during unprecedented events when limited biographic data is available,” OIG said.
DHS replied that it is “proud to have supported… a whole-of-government effort,” and said the report “does not reflect the interagency nature of the vetting process, despite significant efforts and multiple attempts by DHS program officials, subject matter experts, and others to provide the OIG a comprehensive understanding of the extensive details related to the numerous facts and nuances of the unprecedented OAW vetting process.”
CBP “was only one part of an interagency screening and vetting process and did, in fact, screen, vet and inspect all Afghan nationals at the POE,” DHS continued. “Although DHS provided information to the OIG on multiple occasions to clarify the end-to-end screening and vetting processes, as well as to identify the multiple other agencies that are involved in these processes, this information is regrettably not evidenced in the report… senior DHS leadership is concerned that the OIG’s draft report erroneously maintains that DHS could not demonstrate it screened, vetted, and inspected all Afghan nationals, despite the fact that all of these screening and vetting procedures were in place for the Afghan population.”
DHS said the OIG conclusion that two individuals were paroled into the U.S. despite negative information in their records “is incorrect.”
“At times, DHS may be alerted to new derogatory information after individuals are admitted or paroled,” the department said. “This is what occurred in these two cases. That information was provided to the OIG audit team. As expected, DHS and our interagency partners immediately acted upon this new derogatory information; this is indicative of a vetting system that works as designed.”
DHS did not concur with OIG’s recommendations, and the inspector general refused the department’s request to consider the recommendations resolved and closed.
“The OIG recognizes the continued security risks to our Nation, and we will close the recommendation when CBP provides evidence the Department confirmed the identification of all evacuees and screened and vetted them accordingly,” the report states. “Further, CBP must show proof that every evacuee paroled into the United States during OAR/OAW went through recurrent vetting throughout their parole period.”