At the urging of President Donald Trump, U.S. officials have reversed course and decided to allow into the United States a group of Afghan girls hoping to participate in an international robotics competition next week, senior administration officials told POLITICO on Wednesday.
The decision followed a furious public backlash to the news that the six teens had been denied U.S. visas. That criticism swelled as details emerged about the girls’ struggle to build their robot and get visas.
“The State Department worked incredibly well with the Department of Homeland Security to ensure that this case was reviewed and handled appropriately,” Dina Powell, White House deputy national security adviser for strategy, said in a statement. “We could not be prouder of this delegation of young women who are also scientists — they represent the best of the Afghan people and embody the promise that their aspirations can be fulfilled. They are future leaders of Afghanistan and strong ambassadors for their country.”
Critics had argued that the visa denials sent the wrong message to the people of Afghanistan, where U.S. troops are still fighting Taliban militants who once barred girls from attending school. The denials bolstered allegations that Trump is, via executive orders and other means, trying to impose a ban on Muslims entering the United States. The visa rejections also undercut the administration’s insistence that it cares about empowering women globally.
The State Department dismissed the girls’ visa requests at least twice, according to media reports, though, citing privacy laws, it did not spell out its reasons. One common reason Afghans are rejected for U.S. entry is the concern that they will overstay their visas and refuse to go back home.
The president became aware of the case and asked officials at the National Security to see what they could do. After those officials talked to counterparts at various agencies, the Department of Homeland Security agreed to allow the girls in on a system known as “parole,” which will allow them to stay in the United States for 10 days, though technically not on visas. The parole authority is used in exceptional circumstances, senior administration officials told POLITICO. In this case, it was determined there was a significant public benefit to letting the girls in, the officials said.
The girls, who are from western Afghanistan’s Herat area, reportedly leaped over multiple obstacles to build a ball-sorting robot for the FIRST Global Challenge, which is set for July 16-18 in Washington, D.C.
Equipment sent to them got stuck in customs, so they improvised and used household items instead. To apply for their visas at the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan, they traveled hundreds of miles — twice — to Kabul, the Afghan capital, despite facing potential dangers on the road.
Although the girls were first barred from the United States, their robot was not. If they hadn’t been allowed to come to America, the girls planned to watch their creation compete via Skype.
A team representing Gambia at the robotics competition also had its visa applications initially rejected, but its members were later granted admission.
The fact that the girls are representing Afghanistan in the contest shows how far female education there has come since the U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban from power in 2001 — although Afghan girls and women still face many cultural and legal barriers.
The Trump administration is doing a review of America’s South Asia policy, and the American role in Afghanistan is a major part of that process.
Afghanistan is not one of the six countries Trump has tried to target in his legally contested travel ban. But, like those other countries (Iran, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and Libya), Afghanistan is majority Muslim and a staging ground for various armed groups. The Supreme Court plans to review the Trump travel ban, but has allowed it to go into limited effect for some future visa seekers.
On their team page, the Afghan girls wrote: “Most breakthroughs in science, technology, and other industries normally start with the dream of a child to do something great. We want to be that child and pursue our dreams to make a difference in people’s lives.”