Afghan Refugees Coming to the U.S. Aren't Unvetted Security Threats

Nativists like J.D. Vance warn that we need to be "properly vetting" the Afghans coming to the U.S., neglecting to mention just how safe these people are.


It's now less than one week until August 31, the deadline that President Joe Biden has set for the full U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan. An unknown number of American citizens and Afghans who assisted the U.S. military are still stuck there, and with the Taliban calling August 31 a "red line," the pressure is on for a speedy evacuation.

There's now a rift in the Republican Party over what the evacuation of Afghans should entail. On one hand, there are figures like Sen. Ben Sasse (R–Neb.) who support the evacuation of U.S.-affiliated Afghans who assisted American troops during the 20-year war in Afghanistan. "A great nation keeps its word," he told Chris Wallace on Fox News last weekend. "We're talking about men and women who risked their lives to protect Americans. They fought hand in hand with our troops and we made promises to them."

But some loud voices are questioning the safety and sensibility of keeping those promises. Ohio Senate candidate and Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance rebuked Sasse in a video posted to Twitter on Monday. "Let's help the Afghans who helped us," he said, "but let's ensure that we're properly vetting them so that we don't get a bunch of people who believe they should blow themselves up at a mall because somebody looked at their wife the wrong way." Vance has found support from other nativists, including Fox News hosts Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson, and former Trump adviser and immigration hardliner Stephen Miller.

Vance is raising concerns that by and large don't apply to the class of Afghans we're talking about letting in the U.S. The security vetting of "the Afghans who helped us" has been so rigorous as to render his protests completely nonsensical.

It's important to distinguish between Afghans coming to the U.S. and those going elsewhere for intermediate processing. The people coming straight to the U.S. "have completed the rigorous security vetting process" associated with the special immigrant visa (SIV) program, according to State Department spokesman Ned Price. "SIVs who are not at a particular stage" and those "who aren't part of the SIV program" will be processed in Qatar, Bahrain, and Germany, since they have undergone less vetting.

The SIV program is an immigration pathway that was established in 2009 to reward Afghans for "faithful and valuable service to the U.S. government." Careful vetting is a baked-in feature of the intensive 14-step application process. An applicant must submit proof of employment, a letter of recommendation from an American supervisor, and proof of the threats he faces as a result of his service, and he must complete various screenings along the way. He must complete an interview, where his fingerprints are taken. His case then moves through "administrative processing, which may include requesting additional documentation, conducting additional interviews, and interagency security checks," according to the Congressional Research Service.

That is all on top of the security clearances that most Afghans had to acquire to assist U.S. forces in the first place. Combat interpreters, for instance, were vetted before ever going out on patrols with American troops. And as Task & Purpose reports, Betsy Fisher of the International Refugee Assistance Project says "that the vast majority of people who worked with the U.S. government 'had to go through regular checks on their background,' which included polygraph tests and 'regular scans' of their phones against databases of people who were suspected of connections with extremists."

These are not the unvetted people to whom Vance alluded. The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board offered a far better characterization last week: "These are thousands of people who proved they work well with Americans. They aren't Muslim extremists; they are fleeing Muslim extremists." Indeed, these Afghans incurred far greater risks through their service to the American cause than native-born Americans will ever incur through their presence on U.S. soil.

But Vance isn't interested in acknowledging that, and instead took the opportunity to lecture Sasse on integrity: "Real leadership is accepting the tradeoffs of the situation, putting our own citizens first, and not dealing with fake platitudes because it gets people in the media to say nice things about you."

Sasse isn't supporting the evacuation of U.S.-affiliated Afghans for the sake of the media. It's simply the right thing to do—and it's overwhelmingly favored by the American people. According to a CBS News/YouGov poll, 81 percent of people surveyed agree that the U.S. should welcome "Afghan translators" (usually taken to mean SIV applicants and holders, who are not exclusively translators) into the country. Over three-quarters of Republicans approved of the idea.

You would be hard-pressed to find something so popular on both sides of the political aisle. Because Vance's warning can't survive on any measure of logic, he must rely on stoking fear of an impending wave of extremist refugees. But we're in for quite the opposite. Bringing U.S.-affiliated Afghans here, as Sasse notes, will mean we're keeping our promise as a nation and gaining neighbors who are already aligned with American values.

Vance claims to be well-known for his defense of "the conservative way of life that values grit, determination, and freedom," but is unable—or unwilling—to see those values among the Afghans who loyally aided the U.S. in the face of Taliban retribution. Sasse has it right: "When you fought on behalf of Americans to protect our people, you're welcome in my neighborhood." The vast majority of Americans agree.