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Afghan robotics team allowed to travel to US after Trump intervenes

(PHOTO: CNN)

(CNN) — President Donald Trump intervened to help approve entry to the US for an all-girls Afghan robotics team, two senior administration officials told CNN.

The six girls on the team will travel to the US for next week’s FIRST Global Challenge, an international robotics competition in Washington that will be attended by teams from more than 150 countries.

The case received public backlash when it became public that the team’s visa applications to travel to the US for an international robotics competition were denied twice.

After hearing about the girls’ case, Trump asked officials at the National Security Council to assist in the matter, and they in turn consulted the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security, the senior administration officials told CNN. The DHS agreed to allow the girls to enter to the US on temporary “parole” status, which allows them to stay briefly in the country without an official visa on the grounds that there is a public benefit to them visiting, the administration officials added.

“The State Department worked incredibly well with the Department of Homeland Security to ensure that this case was reviewed and handled appropriately,” Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategy Dina Powell, who also took a special interest in the girls’ case, said in a statement Wednesday. “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.”

State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a press briefing Thursday that she could not comment on why the visa applications were denied, adding that that is confidential information under US law. Afghanistan is not one of the six countries affected by the President’s travel ban, though it is a Muslim-majority country whose visa applicants often draw scrutiny.

“We are very happy to have these young girls be able to come here to the United States to participate in this robotics competition,” Nauert said.

FIRST Global President Joe Sestak told CNN that the Afghan girls were contacted a few days ago by the American embassy in Afghanistan and informed of the alternative route for getting travel approval. Sestak said the State Department was a “star player” in the entire process of coordinating travel for the competing teams, but he had no direct knowledge of Trump’s involvement.

Ivanka Trump tweeted her support for the girls Tuesday evening after Politico reported on the President’s involvement.

“I look forward to welcoming this brilliant team of Afghan girls, and their competitors, to Washington DC next week! #WomenInSTEM,” she tweeted.

The competition’s organizers had originally arranged for a group of Afghan-American students living in the United States to operate the Afghan team’s robot, according to a news release from FIRST Global.

The Afghan-American students will still accompany the Afghan team at the opening ceremony “to highlight the values of sportsmanship, coopertition (cooperation in competition) and gracious professionalism that defines FIRST Global,” according to the release.

According to the competition’s news release, a team from Gambia has also been approved for travel to the US after its application for visas was initially denied.