Department of State

Afghan Girl Roboticists Are Denied Visas and Everybody Is Angry

But the event's sponsor says its visa approval rate was remarkably high and that no other country could offer such access.


via FIRST Global

The State Department has rejected visa applications from Afghan and Gambian teams hoping to visit the United States for a robotics competition. But FIRST Global, the nonprofit that organized the event, expects all 160 other participant teams to be able to attend. Compared to the historical averages on such visa issuances, the group considers that a great success.

"I've been absolutely amazed at how well the coordination of the United States government State Department has been," says FIRST Global President Joe Sestak, formerly a Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania. More than a third of the participant countries have visa refusal rates of 40 to 80 percent, and many more have refusal rates of 35 percent. Given that, Sestak reports that his group "expected to have about a third of the countries potentially not be able to gain visas." Sestak notes that the State Department helped a number of applicant teams who were rejected on their first tries, and sent a memo to embassies all over the world letting them know about the competition.

In 2016, the visa refusal rate for Afghanistan was about 74 percent and for Gambia about 70 percent. Overall last year, the State Department rejected 2.7 million B1/B2 visas (the type of business travel visas used for the robotics competition).

Yet media coverage frequently left the impression that this year's visa rejections were unusual. A Washington Post editorial claimed the all-girls Afghan team's story had ended in tears "thanks to the U.S.," calling the visa denial "inexplicable" and "self-defeating." Many news reports mention that few B1/B2 visas have approved from Afghanistan this year, but few if any note last year's refusal rate. The English-language Daily Times in Pakistan even suggested that the Afghan team was rejected because it couldn't be fit into the "white savior" narrative.

Sestak has written several letters, including one he posted on Facebook, to try to clarify the matter.

"The first interview that I gave, they didn't take what I had said, but you know, I understand that," Sestak says. "Journalists need to do what they feel is right and I accept that."

Sestak also rejects the idea that such competitions should be held outside the country in the age of Trump. "No other nation would have such access as ours," he says. "The proof of that is Iran's coming. Sudan's coming." Both countries are affected by President Trump's travel ban.

The Iranian team did face a different hurdle related to U.S. foreign policy. A number of teams come from countries that face U.S. sanctions. While FIRST Global was able to ship materials to Cuba and Sudan, they were unable to do the same for the Iranians. Instead, Iran's team worked with American high school students to build a robot remotely. The Iranians will attend the competition next week.

The teams from Afghanistan and Gambia were allowed to ship their robots to the U.S. So if they're unable to secure visas at the last moment, they will still participate in the competition via Skype.

Despite the high rate of visa approval for this competition, visa issuances have gone down during the Trump administration. In 2016 the State Department approved about 2,000 B1/B2 visas for Afghanistan, but it is on track to approve closer to 1,000 this year. Last year it approved about 23,000 B1/B2 visas for Iran and 13,000 for Iraq; this year the numbers are on track to be 13,000 from Iran and 7,700 from Iraq. Other travel ban countries have fared worse. More than 1,400 B1/B2 visas were approved for Libyans last year; this year Libya is on track for just 150 approvals.

But Trump's border-control rhetoric is often far harsher than what U.S. laws actually permit. When media outlets paint the grimmest possible portrait of travel to the United States, they end up helping Trump, because they treat his words as the overwhelmingly defining factor in an area that in fact is far more complex and is not exclusively under the president's control.

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  1. But, but, if they are allowed to come here, they will unleash their self-replicating battle-bots that will destroy the country…

    1. And they will be HERE, in this country they are destroying, They will be the first robot-assisted suicide EVER.

      How awesome is that!

    2. Aren’t they just Legos that were programmed for them by American academics?

      Whenever I hear the words “girls and STEM” I unsafe my Browning.

  2. Come on! Afghanistan is a country of rubble (partly thanks to the USSR and USA) where most people don’t have much and women are treated as if they lived in the 15th Century.

    We are supposed to believe that Afghan girls are entering this competition for robotics rather than meeting male suitors in the USA on visitor visas?

    I will believe these young women are robotics enthusiasts if I see pictures of their robot experiments and extra parts laying around.

    1. Well, I’m sure they’ve seen a lot of American robots doing ‘work’ on the side of the road…and that being said I imagine a lot of girls in countries like Afghanistan probably want out so they can do things like play with robots all day too.

    2. Jesus Crist, dude. Most people don’t have much doesn’t mean nobody has anything. Check the video on the WaPo link. There are pictures of just that. If that’s not good enough, 10 seconds on Google will get you more.

      1. I have to go to WaPo then. I will take your word for it that there are great pictures of them with all sorts of parts and its not a propaganda job.

        If there is one thing that people who live day to day in poverty have disposable income for, its robotics.

        Jesus Christ is another one who would not have spent his disposable income on robotics.

        1. How do you know these specific girls live day to day in poverty? It’s not like everyone in the country of Afghanistan lives a Stone Age existence.

          In the absence of any evidence to suggest your pulled-out-of-the-ass explanation about seeking male suitors, I’m going to guess that a team participating in a robotics competition is probably seeking a visa for a robotics competition. It’s not even like you can just meet a guy and get an instant marriage visa to stay in the US, that isn’t how it works.

          1. It was a general assessment of quality of life for Afghanis and there is nothing wrong with that, since this is not kids from South Korea wanting to attend in the USA.

            I am sure these girls get just the parts they need delivered via FedEx next day service in their city of Herat.
            /sarcasm absolutely intended

            Afghanistan is still in a state of war with Americans still fighting there. Afghani roads and other infrastructure are horrendous. Afghani literacy rate is ~38%. UniCef estimates that 33% of Afghani girls under 18 are married.

            There is a 74% visa refusal rate for Afghanis and “B” visas.

          2. Furthermore, we are in a state of war with Afghanistan or people in Afghanistan. Americans are dying there and we are supposed to feel sad about Afghanis not being able to come to the USA?

            Our troops leave Afghanistan, Afghanis get a stable government and then we can talk Afghani kids coming to the USA for a robotics competition.

            1. We aren’t in a state of war with Afghanistan. Nominally, we are supposed to be allies with the government of Afghanistan that nominally represents the people there. Obviously it’s more complicated than that, but it’s also inaccurate to make the country or people overall out to be our enemies.

              1. *And to add extra clarification, I’m aware we are war in Afghanistan. I’m merely pointing out that’s not the same thing as being at war with the country of Afghanistan.

              2. We invaded Afghanistan. We have military fighting, occupying and dying in Afghanistan.
                I was careful to not say at war with Afghanistan but we are not allies. We have no declaration of war against Afghanistan but they do not get to tell the USA when we are leaving.

                True that all Afghanis are not deemed military targets but they are not trusted by our military forces.

                I use the term “state of war” with Afghanistan because we were not invited and invaded a sovereign nation.

    3. Let’s just assume that the only reason women leave Afghanistan is to attempt to marry foreign men. Why exactly should I be offended or give a shit about that?

    4. You’re one of those people that has never traveled more than 100 miles from their home town, aren’t you?

      1. I have been on every continent, so right back at ya.

    5. Are you really this stupid or are you just trolling?

      1. Are you stupid to believe everything the media tells you? Or are you just trolling?

        Why is this national news? This is national news because this fits the narrative that questioning visa applicants and immigrants is part of the evil plan to block all these innocent and great people wanting to enter the USA.

        See, its kids just wanting to do robotics and Trump’s evil henchmen stopped that.

    6. Maybe they want to learn a useful skill and get recognition for it so they can pull themselves out of poverty. But, hey, let’s close the door on them and then blame them for their poverty.

      1. They can also learn about disappointment and how the USA has not obligation to let in people from countries where our soldiers are still dying.

        Not that its a kids fault.

  3. The Afghan Girl Roboticists would be a pretty good name for a band.

  4. More evidence of winning. So much winning you won’t believe how much winning.

  5. does their robot dig a hole, push the other robot in and then stone it?

    1. “our model shoves the infidel *off the building* for you…”

    2. Only if its a lady robot that does not wear a hijib or burka.

  6. “In 2016, the visa refusal rate for Afghanistan was about 74 percent and for Gambia about 70 percent.”

    That should be “and for *the* Gambia about 70 percent.” (The government of The Gambia is so insistent on their definite article that they capitalize it, as I just did. They’re probably afraid that if they don’t make special efforts the article will be lost, as in the case of the Sudan, the Upper Volta–and eventually, I suppose, the Philippines, the Maldives, and the Netherlands.)

    1. And yet people still say “the Ukraine” even though that’s never really been correct.

      1. Ukraine is not weak!

        1. Well we’re playing a game here, buddy.

      2. That’s to avoid confusion with that other Ukraine.

  7. Don’t understand the paragraph beginning “Despite the high rate of approval…”
    It says something about the state department issuing 2000 visas this year and on pace for only 1000 this year. What is that in reference to? The following sentences contradict that with much higher numbers.

    1. I’m guessing this was in reference to a specific country, but you’re right that as is it’s not clear what it’s referring to.

      1. IANAM, but I noticed that, too.

  8. Ed, serious question here: you state that visa approvals are down from 2016; what about relative to applications? One could surmise that Trump’s rhetoric has lowered the number of applicants. I’m curious whether this is so.

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