A group of 26 GOP senators, led by Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), demanded the Biden Administration provide the exact number of Americans left in Afghanistan and how they have been vetting a large number of evacuees.
“Our immediate priority is the safety and well-being of American citizens, permanent residents, and allies who were left behind in Afghanistan,” GOP senators said in an official letter (pdf) to President Joe Biden Thursday morning.
The senators said that signatories of the letter might have different opinions about whether the United States should have maintained a military presence in Afghanistan, but “we all agree that the arbitrary and poorly-planned method by which you withdrew from Afghanistan caused this crisis.”
“Of the American citizens still in Afghanistan, how many are currently in contact with the State Department? … How many have expressed a desire to be repatriated to the United States?” the senators asked.
“How did the administration reach this estimate, and what steps is the administration taking to find and connect with Americans who may still be in Afghanistan but who are not in contact with the State Department?”
The 26 senators also asked similar questions about green card holders and Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applicants. They asked what steps the Biden administration had taken to ensure SIV applicants’ safety while they remain in Afghanistan.
The State Department estimates that between 100 and 200 Americans are still in Afghanistan after the last U.S. military plane departed the airport in Kabul.
“We’re trying to determine exactly how many. We’re going through manifests and calling and texting through our lists, and we will have more details to share as soon as possible. Part of the challenge with fixing a precise number is that there are longtime residents of Afghanistan who have American passports and who are trying to determine whether or not they want to leave. Many are dual citizen Americans with deep roots and extended families in Afghanistan who resided there for many years. For many, it’s a painful choice,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Monday. “Our commitment to them and to all Americans in Afghanistan and everywhere in the world continues.”
Tens of thousands of SIV applicants remain in Afghanistan, according to aid groups. The Association of Wartime Allies has pegged the number as high as 118,000 when including the applicants’ family members.
The Wall Street Journal reported that the majority of Afghan interpreters and others who applied for visas were left in Afghanistan.
“We are also concerned by reports that ineligible individuals, including Afghans with ties to terrorist organizations or serious, violent criminals, were evacuated alongside innocent refugee families,” the GOP senators continued.
The Department of State estimated that more than 123,000 individuals had been evacuated from Afghanistan in recent weeks. Among them, about 6,000 were American citizens.
“What steps are your administration taking to ensure that individuals are thoroughly vetted and their identities verified before entering the United States?” the senators asked.
The Biden administration acknowledged that fewer than 50 percent of evacuated Afghans were SIV applicants or their families, the GOP senators pointed out.
“There are reports that a convicted rapist—who had previously served a prison sentence in the United States before being deported—was flown to the national capital region as part of this airlift operation,” the letter continued, referencing a case reported by the Washington Times. “Was that individual vetted before being flown to the United States? If so, was his criminal record found and ignored, or was it not found in the first place?”
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki promised that all evacuees coming to America would have been thoroughly vetted.
“I can absolutely assure you that no one is coming into the United States of America who has not been through a thorough screening and background check process,” Psaki said in Wednesday’s briefing. “And there are many individuals, as you noted, who have not been through that process and they have gone to lily pad countries, as that process has been completed. It doesn’t mean that that’s because there is a flag. It means they have not completed their paperwork, and we were working to save tens of thousands of people. Hence we evacuated them to these third countries.”
The GOP senators demanded that the Biden administration provide answers no later than 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 7.
Zachary Stieber contributed to this report.