July 21, 2021
MR PRICE: Good afternoon, and thanks, everyone, for joining us for this call on Operation Allies Refuge, which, of course, is an effort President Biden announced earlier this month to support relocation flights for interested and eligible Afghan nationals and their families who have supported the United States in Afghanistan. Just a reminder of the ground rules: We will have opening remarks from Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Brian McKeon and Afghanistan Task Force Director Ambassador Tracey Jacobson. Those will be on the record. After their remarks, we’ll then open it up for Q&A and we’ll do that on background to senior State Department officials, and I’ll provide more details on that in just a moment.
This call is embargoed until it is – until its conclusion. As we always do, we’ll have a transcript available after the fact. But with that, I will turn it over to Deputy Secretary McKeon.
DEPUTY SECRETARY MCKEON: Thank you, Ned. Good afternoon, everybody. Last week, the President outlined the next steps in our efforts to honor the commitment to Afghans who worked side by side with Americans in Afghanistan over the years, including interpreters and translators. We owe a great debt to those who have provided valuable and faithful service to the United States working alongside our military and diplomatic personnel, thereby putting their own lives at risk.
In recognition of our commitment, the United States will temporarily relocate these individuals and their families who feel threatened in Afghanistan so they can complete their Special Immigrant Visa processing outside of Afghanistan. We’ve already accelerated the processing of SIVs in part by adding additional staff at U.S. Embassy Kabul to process applications and by using technology to improve efficiency and work flow.
In February, Embassy Kabul reopened for in-person immigrant visa services following an 11-month suspension due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That backlog has since been cleared out and we’re working as fast possible to interview SIV applicants whose appointments were canceled during a recent COVID outbreak in Kabul. Since January, we’ve already approved 2,500 Special Immigrant Visas.
Much work remains to be done. That’s why Secretary Blinken asked three-time Ambassador Tracey Jacobson to lead our newly created Afghanistan coordination task force. The task force will coordinate the U.S. Government’s efforts to bring qualified SIV applicants to the United States once their security vetting is complete. The Department of State, Homeland Security, other U.S. Government departments and agencies involved in the SIV program are committed to helping the men and women who have taken significant risks to support our military and diplomatic personnel.
I want to thank Ambassador Jacobson, who’s here with us in the room, for standing up this task force and getting them going and for all they’ve been able to accomplish in just a few days since it started, and turn it over to her.
AMBASSADOR JACOBSON: Thank you, Deputy Secretary. My team and I are working to coordinate the U.S. Government’s efforts to relocate thousands of Afghans and their immediate families. It’s hard work and a sacred duty to fill our commitment to these people.
Our first priority is to relocate to the United States some 750 Afghan SIV applicants and their immediate families who have completed the majority of the visa process, including a thorough security background check. We are working to bring them to the United States starting next week. They will be paroled into the United States and have their status adjusted by the Department of Homeland Security. During this processing, they will be located at Fort Lee, Virginia, and when they leave Fort Lee, they will join 70,000 Afghans who have received SIVs and started new lives in the United States since 2008.
We are also working to relocate from Afghanistan those applicants who have received chief of mission approval but have not gone so far in their visa processing, including the full security screen. This group includes about 4,000 principal applicants and their families. We will take them to locations outside the United States where they can safely await the completion of their application processing, and we will provide them accommodation and other support during this period, which we are committed to making as short as possible.
I know many Americans will want to welcome and help these Afghans who dedicated themselves to the United States mission in Afghanistan. We’ve already had inquiries from some of them, and we encourage people who are interested in assisting resettled Afghan special immigrants or any refugees to reach out to their local refugees resettlement agency to donate, volunteer, or even form community sponsorship teams. There are many opportunities to be involved in welcoming Afghans as they come to the United States.
As President Biden said to these Afghans and their families, there is a home for you in the United States if you so choose, and we’ll stand with you just as you stood with us.
MODERATOR: Thank you both. We now look forward to taking your questions, and we will do this on background. You can attribute what you hear to senior State Department officials. We will have [Senior State Department Official One] and [Senior State Department Official Two] with us. We will be joined by [Senior State Department Official Three], we’ll have [Senior State Department Official Four], and we’ll have [Senior State Department Official Five].
And so, with that, operator, if you want to just repeat instructions for asking questions.
OPERATOR: Thank you very much. Ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to ask a question today, please press 1 followed by 0. We will announce your name and organization and put you – open your line. And as a reminder, please wait until I let you know that your line is open before asking a question. So again, please press 1, 0 at this time to ask a question. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Great. We’ll start with Kylie Atwood.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Kylie, your line is open.
QUESTION: Thanks, guys, for doing this. I think we all have a bunch of questions. I am wondering how long the administration plans to be doing these relocation efforts. Do you expect this is something that will happen over the course of years given some SIV applicants have just applied recently given the U.S. troop withdrawal?
My second question is about safety for these Afghans. What is the U.S. doing, what can the U.S. do to provide them with any safety when U.S. troops withdraw from the country, and how are they being transported to the airport? Is there any support for them given threats from the Taliban? And last question is: How long are they expected to stay at Fort Lee in this final stage? Thanks.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So working backward, we don’t expect them to stay at Fort Lee for very often, or very long, excuse me. We’ll try to work them through Fort Lee in 7 to 10 day is our hope and expectation. The applicants need to get themselves to Kabul. We’re not going to talk about how they get in and around Kabul and to the airport for security reasons.
The SIV Program is – has eligibility standards, and we have authorized numbers from the U.S. Congress, and so long as we keep having those numbers provided to us by Congress, we’ll keep processing SIV applicants.
MODERATOR: We will go to the line of Andrea Mitchell, please.
OPERATOR: Thank you. One moment. Ms. Mitchell, your line is open.
QUESTION: Can you talk about the others in the program and where else they might be going, and how long it will take to get what was originally estimated as as many as 70,000 people, including families, accommodated because obviously their lives are right now in danger? Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So the total number of applicants to the SIV Program number just over 20,000, but about half of those have not yet completed the initial stages of the application process, so we’re not in a position to move forward with their case until they do so. So I’m not sure where the 70,000 number comes from. The 4,000 number and their families, they would be targeted for the next phase of bringing people to third country locations, and that process in the third country would take longer because they’re not as far along in the screening process as those who we will bring to the United States.
MODERATOR: We’ll go to the line of Laura Seligman.
OPERATOR: Thank you. I apologize, I do not see Laura’s name. Laura, would you hit 1, 0 again?
MODERATOR: It looks like she just dropped out of the queue. No problem. We will move on then to the line of Nick Schifrin.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Mr. Schifrin, your line is open.
QUESTION: Thanks, guys. Let me follow up on what comes next. Can you confirm that there’s the deal pretty much done to move, I don’t know if it’s the next round or the third round, some of these applicants to military bases in Kuwait and Qatar? And can you talk about whether there’s a push on P-2 refugees, whether the number – sorry, the kind of aperture of the person who can apply, whether there’s a push to expand that aperture and including P-2 refugees. And I know you don’t want to talk about some of the details on transport for security reasons, but can you give us any more details on how exactly they will get to Fort Lee this first round? Thanks.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I’m sorry, Nick, I was – I didn’t understand the last piece of the question. I’m not sure we have many answers that we can give you. We’re talking to third countries about the possibility of temporary relocation, but we’re not in a position to confirm any agreements with any of those third countries at this time.
On the transportation to Fort Lee, we will fly them into the country and bring them by vehicle to Fort Lee. I assume it will be buses.
And what was the second question? I’m sorry.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Oh. On the question of the P-2 refugee program, we are looking at several options, including expanding pathways through the refugee program.
MODERATOR: Let’s go to the line of Ellen Knickmeyer.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Ms. Knickmeyer, your line is open.
QUESTION: Hi there. Thank you for doing this. Let’s see. Is the – because the Afghan SIVs will fly out through the Kabul airport, has there been an agreement finalized to keep that operating under Turkey? I don’t know if their relocations are all supposed to be completed by the time the U.S. withdraws or not. And then you say you’re – do you not yet have any agreement from any other country to temporarily host the Afghan SIVs?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: On the second question, we don’t have agreement with any countries that we’re ready to announce here.
On the airport, obviously, we’ve said the airport needs to be open and functioning as part of a normal country, and we’re grateful for our conversations with our colleagues in Turkey. The DOD is leading those conversations. We’re optimistic that we’ll have the security package that we need at the airport in Kabul.
MODERATOR: We’ll go to Dan Lamothe.
OPERATOR: Thank you, one moment. Mr. Lamothe, your line is open. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thanks for doing this today. A couple follow-on questions just to clarify. Before these individuals receive chief of mission approval, it sounds like they’ll be staying in Afghanistan? Just wanted to check on that.
And then when it comes to these facilities in third countries, can you describe a bit what they’re going to look like, both in terms of living conditions and then also any kind of services? It occurs to me you’re going to have children in play here with potentially months and months of waiting.
And then a third question, since there are a number of anecdotes of interpreters who have been denied SIV applications in the past, often for seemingly unclear and arbitrary reasons, what will be done to take care of individuals like that, especially if it comes down to paperwork from companies they’re not in touch with and things along those lines? Thanks.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thanks, Dan. Working backwards, I mean, the third one – the last question is a tough one because we have applicants who have sought to enter the program who cannot find verification of their employment from their – say they worked for a DOD contractor many years ago. We’re trying to help them. The Department of Defense is trying to help with that part of it, but that is a critical first stage to prove eligibility.
On the conditions, I’m not really in a position to speak to that right now in the third countries. Suffice to say we will house and feed them in safe and adequate facilities.
On your first question, we haven’t made any – we haven’t ruled anything in and out of what we’re doing. We’re starting in these phases with people at the later stages of the program.
MODERATOR: We’ll take a couple additional questions. We’ll go to the line of Conor Finnegan.
OPERATOR: Mr. Finnegan, please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you for having this call. A couple of follow-ups as well. Can you say how many there are in total with this group of 4,000 principal applicants who will be moved to third countries? If you include their families, what is that total number?
You said applicants will have to get themselves to Kabul. For many of them, that journey would be dangerous if not impossible. What would you say to the – to security concerns of folks trying to get to Kabul? Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So we don’t know for certain how many family members will be brought. The principal applicant can choose to bring the ones that are eligible. We’ve just been doing these rough extrapolations based on an average of three to five per principal applicant based on past practice. In order to come on an evacuation flight, they would have to get themselves to Kabul. Obviously, we don’t have substantial U.S. military presence. We don’t have an ability to provide transportation for them. If they’re, say, in the north of the country and they don’t feel safe staying in Afghanistan, they could go to a neighboring country and finish their SIV application process there.
MODERATOR: We will go to Meghann Myers, who I understand is together with Lara Seligman, so if you want to call on Meghann Myers, please.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Ms. Myers, please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks so much, [Moderator]. This is Lara. I’m wondering if you could tell us anything more about where else these 4,000 other applicants are going, and what is the timeline for this next batch to come over to the United States? And then also, I’m wondering what happens to the other Afghans who risked their lives to help the U.S., these journalists, women’s rights activists, Afghan troops that don’t fall into the SIV category. How are we helping them escape the Taliban? Thank you.
And this is Meghann. I’ll jump in after that answer.
MODERATOR: Well, Meghann, why don’t you offer your question now? We’ll take them together.
QUESTION: Okay, great. So my question is about the 4,000 who are going to be going abroad to complete their processes. Will they be able to fully complete everything from the third-party country, or will they need to come to Fort Lee to finish out that process? And are you looking at any other domestic installations such as Fort Lee for applicants who are in the final stages to go to?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Lara, on your first questions, I don’t really have any more detail than I’ve previously given on the third country option. On the 4,000 who will be going to third countries, we expect that we would complete the process within – in that third country, and then they would come to the United States and go to their ultimate destination. We wouldn’t expect as of this time – maybe that could change – to put them onto a military base for any period of time.
As to whether we will use another facility besides Fort Lee, that’s really a question for the Department of Defense. They were given the requirements by the State Department. They selected Fort Lee as an option for this, this first phase that we’re doing here of evacuating the people at the later stage in the process.
And then, Lara, your other question about others who have helped the United States, I think I referenced that in response to an earlier question. We’re looking at other options and pathways for people who’ve helped us.
MODERATOR: And we’ll conclude with the line of Nike Ching.
OPERATOR: Thank you very much. Nike, please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Good afternoon. Thank you so much for the call. Just a follow-up question on the Afghanistan fixers who have helped the U.S. press organizations. Would you support the creation of a visa program for those Afghans, Afghans who helped with the U.S. media organizations and who are now seeking safety in the U.S.? I’m asking this because a coalition of U.S. media organizations has sent a letter to the Congress requesting to create such visa program. Would you like to weigh in? Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yes, thank you. We’ve seen the letter from the news organizations and we’ll be responding in due course to them. As I think I’ve responded previously to this question, in terms of other people in Afghanistan who have helped the United States or helped U.S. organizations, whether it’s NGOs or media organizations, we are looking at other options for providing safe options for them outside of Afghanistan.
MODERATOR: Right, well, thank you very much, everyone. Just a reminder: The Q&A was done on a background basis. That was a senior State Department official. And with that, the embargo is lifted and we’ll conclude the call. Talk to you soon.