Afghan ro­bot­ics team ar­rives for U.S. con­test

Trump in­ter­venes to al­low girls to travel to com­pe­ti­tion

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Josh Le­d­er­man

WASH­ING­TON» Twice re­jected for U.S. visas, an all­girls ro­bot­ics team from Afghanistan ar­rived in Wash­ing­ton early Satur­day af­ter an ex­tra­or­di­nary, last-minute in­ter­ven­tion by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump.

The team of six girls and their chap­er­one com­pleted their jour­ney just af­ter mid­night from their home­town of Herat, Afghanistan, to en­ter their ball-sort­ing ro­bot in the three-day high school com­pe­ti­tion start­ing Sun­day in the U.S. cap­i­tal. Await­ing them at the gate at Wash­ing­ton Dulles In­ter­na­tional Air­port were a U.S. spe­cial en­voy and Afghan Am­bas­sador Ham­dul­lah Mo­hib, who de­scribed it as a rare mo­ment of cel­e­bra­tion for his be­lea­guered na­tion.

“Seven­teen years ago, this would not have been pos­si­ble at all,” Mo­hib said in an in­ter­view. “They rep­re­sent our as­pi­ra­tions and re­silience de­spite hav­ing been brought up in a per­pet­ual con­flict. These girls will be prov­ing to the world and the na­tion that noth­ing will pre­vent us from be­ing an equal and ac­tive mem­ber of the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity.”

In the short time since their visa dilemma drew global at­ten­tion, the girls’ case has be­come a flash­point in the de­bate about Trump’s ef­forts to tighten en­trance to the U.S., in­clud­ing from many ma­jor­i­ty­mus­lim coun­tries. Afghanistan isn’t in­cluded in Trump’s tem­po­rary travel ban, but crit­ics have said the ban is em­blem­atic of a broader ef­fort to put a chill on Mus­lims en­ter­ing the U.S.

The girls’ story has also re­newed the fo­cus on the longer-term U.S. plans for aid­ing Afghanistan’s fu­ture, as Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion pre­pares a new military strat­egy that will in­clude send­ing more troops to the coun­try where the U.S. has been fight­ing since 2001. De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis said Fri­day the strat­egy was mov­ing for­ward but “not fi­nal­ized yet.”

Trump’s per­sonal in­ter­ven­tion ear­lier in the week us­ing a rare “pa­role” mech­a­nism to side­step the visa sys­tem ended a dra­matic saga in which the team twice trav­eled from its home in western Afghanistan through largely Tal­iban-con­trolled ter­ri­tory to Kabul, where the girls’ visa ap­pli­ca­tions were de­nied twice.

The U.S. won’t say why the girls were re­jected for visas. But Mo­hib said that based on dis­cus­sions with U.S. of­fi­cials, it ap­pears the girls were re­buffed due to con­cerns they would not re­turn to Afghanistan.

As their case gained at­ten­tion, Trump in­ter­vened by ask­ing Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil of­fi­cials to find a way for them to travel, of­fi­cials said. Ul­ti­mately the State Depart­ment, which ad­ju­di­cates visa ap­pli­ca­tions, asked the Home­land Se­cu­rity Depart­ment to let them in on “pa­role,” a tem­po­rary sta­tus used only in ex­cep­tional cir­cum­stances to let in some­one who is oth­er­wise in­el­i­gi­ble.

AP file

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