Former Gov. Markell discusses role as White House coordinator for Afghan resettlement


It’s a notion touted in America, often repeated by politicians and written on the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

True or not, it’s the idea that America was designed as a place for people to start over.

That notion is currently playing out in a big way after the nearly 20 years of conflict in Afghanistan ended in the Taliban reestablishing rule. Now, some 56,000 Afghan refugees are waiting on U.S. military bases to be resettled.

To help ensure the process goes smoothly, former Delaware Gov. Jack Markell is serving as the White House coordinator in Operation Allies Welcome, a role he started in early September.

“I think this speaks to who we are as a country,” Mr. Markell said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “So many Americans have a story of our ancestors coming from another place, successfully integrating into our community and then adding to the richness and quality that is America.”

Mr. Markell, who was born and raised in Newark, was governor from 2009 to 2017, serving two consecutive terms. Prior to being governor, he was the state’s treasurer from 1999 to 2009.

Mr. Markell is tasked with coordinating federal agencies — Department of Homeland Security, National Security Council, Domestic Policy Council to name a few — and mayors, governors, veterans groups, faith-based organizations and members of the Afghan diaspora to ensure the Afghan refugees are settled comfortably here.

“My job is to ensure not only a whole of governments approach, but a whole of America approach,” he said.

Mr. Markell also has been tapped by President Joe Biden to serve as ambassador to the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, pending Senate confirmation.

As coordinator, a role he will hold until the end of the year, Mr. Markell is responsible for fielding questions from governors as refugees move through the resettlement process.

He said having been on the other side of the table, so to speak, as a former governor himself, he understands the “legitimate questions they have and that they are entitled to straightforward answers.”

Mr. Markell said he has received questions about the security vetting process and public health measures, like vaccinations, for those coming here. Another frequent inquiry is about ensuring the Afghan refugees are being put on a path to self-sufficiency as quickly as possible.

“People are very interested in how they can help get families resettled in the communities, how they can help get kids enrolled in school, how they help get people connected to jobs and feel welcome in the communities,” he said. “Those are the kinds of things that we’ve been hearing a lot about.”

Mr. Markell said of the 56,000 Afghan refugees on domestic military bases, more than 9,500 have been resettled into communities already. There will be another 4,500 who will be arriving in the next week from U.S. military bases in Europe and the Middle East and another 30,000 coming into the country in the next year, he said.

“We are especially focused now on the folks who are on the U.S. military bases and those who will be arriving in the next week,” Mr. Markell said.

In terms of the vetting process for the refugees, Mr. Markell said that starts with the Department of Homeland Security who sent 400 officers from the U.S. Customs and Border Protections Bureau to U.S. military bases in Europe and the Middle East.

“Everyone who left Afghanistan, none of them flew directly to the United States,” Mr. Markell said. “They all stopped in Europe or the Middle East.”

He said DHS officers perform a “multilayer approach of vetting” that combines law enforcement, intelligence and counter-terrorism. Outlining some of the layers applied to the vetting, he said the refugees need to clear a biographic information and biometric information check.

“Everyone had to clear that before they got on a plane to come to the United States,” he said.

Once the Afghan refugees are in America, Mr. Markell said the next step is for each person to be tested for COVID-19. If the results come back negative, they are sent to one of eight military bases in the U.S.

While on a domestic military base, Mr. Markell said, they will get a series of vaccinations, a work authorization document and be connected to one of nine national resettlement agencies.

Those agencies, he said, have about 200 affiliates across the country that work with local communities to determine the capacity for settling Afghan refugees within those communities.

“Those local communities and resettlement agencies are responsible for helping them get housing, getting their kids connected to school and the likes,” Mr. Markell said. “That’s really how the process works.”

Mr. Markell said members of the Afghan diaspora in America also are aiding in the resettlement process — being a bridge between Afghan and American culture, for example.

“They’re all over the United States and they’re very interested in helping the new arrivals settle in,” he said. “I think they’re a very valuable resource and we so much appreciate their level of engagement.”

With the conflict between America and the Taliban drawing comparisons to the Vietnam War, the Afghan resettlement effort too is being compared to Vietnamese resettlement that began in the late 1970s.

Mr. Markell said that when comparing the two, it’s important to recognize how much refugees add to the country.

“We have a history in our country of immigrants and refugees bringing new ideas, new energy, fresh perspectives to the communities in which they settle,” he said. “We’ve been very much enriched by the Vietnamese refugees who came over. When we do a good job with the Afghans, the same thing will be said years from now about how the Afghans also have added to our country.”

Mr. Markell said a group that has been vocal about “our obligation to do a good job with resettlement of the Afghans” is U.S. veterans.

“Our veterans know firsthand, having worked with, served with so many of our allies from Afghanistan, that we owe them a safe and dignified welcoming to our country,” he said.