With thousands of Afghan refugees expected to arrive to the U.S., the State Department must facilitate their resettlement across the country as some critics raise concerns over homeland security and the swift vetting process.
An undisclosed number of Afghan refugees arrived at Washington Dulles International Airport on Saturday, and were transported to Northern Virginia Community College’s Annandale Campus. Its Ernst Center was to be used to house at least 200 refugees, and the Fairfax County Office of Emergency Management gathered 500 cots, as well as food, water and other supplies.
But the State Department later bused the refugees back to the airport to be temporarily housed in the Dulles Expo Center in Chantilly, Virginia. A Pentagon spokesperson said the expo center will serve as a “temporary layover location” until the refugees, many of whom are children, can be transported to either Fort Bliss, Texas, or Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, WRC-TV reported.
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Those installations are working to build the capacity to host about 22,000 total Afghans in the coming days and weeks and there’s a possibility other installations might be receiving them as well, Pentagon press secretary John F. Kirby told reporters on Friday. Fort Lee, located in Prince George County, Virginia, has also been processing Afghan refugees over the past several weeks.
Three flights containing refugees had landed at Washington Dulles International Airport within a 24-hour period, Maj. Gen. Hank Taylor, deputy director of the Joint Staff for Regional Operations, J-35, said Saturday, briefing reporters again at the Pentagon.
“I would add that intelligence, law enforcement and counterterrorism professionals are conducting screening and security vetting for all SIV [special immigrant visa] and others, vulnerable Afghans, before they are allowed to enter into the United States,” he said. “These agencies are surging resources to evaluate all of these evacuees to ensure protection of the homeland.”
As Afghan refugees will be processed in their home state at Fort Bliss, Texas Republicans, Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz have both stressed the United States’ obligation to take those who helped American forces out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible to save them from Taliban persecution.
Fort Bliss already houses thousands of undocumented minors from the U.S.-Mexico border, and Cruz emphasized that he also plans on holding the Biden administration accountable for vetting Afghans now also coming to the facility amid a need to also “keep our citizens safe.”
In Wisconsin, Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Tiffany unleashed criticism against the White House, as Afghan refugees are expected to arrive at Fort McCoy, which is in his home state but outside his congressional district. He said the Biden administration has “declined to elaborate on how many will come, what screening will be carried out prior to arrival, or what will happen after they land here.”
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“Alarmingly, the White House has also declined to say whether these individuals will be held in custody during vetting, or if we will see the same kind of catch-and-release policy we’ve seen on our southern border,” Tiffany said in a statement. “Adding insult to injury, President Biden has not bothered to seek the approval of Wisconsin leaders, or the local communities that will be affected by this haphazard plan.”
The congressman said the Homeland Security Department has asked for “volunteers” to review and adjudicate visa applications after the Afghans have arrived on U.S. soil, as agencies like Customs and Border Protection are already overwhelmed by the crisis on the southern border.
“To be clear, I voted for legislation to expand, improve and accelerate the processing of visas for Afghans who assisted in the U.S. war effort earlier this year – something that most Americans support,” Tiffany said. “The White House should abandon this dangerous, ready-fire-aim plan and mitigate risk by transporting Afghans to safe third countries for vetting before bringing thousands of unknown people into Wisconsin or other U.S. states.
“Our national security has been deeply degraded in the months since Jan. 20 and allowing the mass entry of foreigners from a known hotbed of terrorism will only make this situation far worse,” he added.
Since the end of July, the U.S. military has relocated approximately 22,000 people. Since Aug. 14, approximately 17,000 people have been evacuated from Afghanistan, Taylor said Saturday.
Six U.S. Military C-17s and 32 charters had departed Kabul within a 24-hour period by Saturday, Taylor said. The total passenger count for those flights was approximately 3,800. Two days earlier, the U.S. military airlifted nearly 6,000 evacuees, including several hundred Americans, in a single day.
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On Sunday, the Department of Defense activated a civil fleet to aid with the evacuation of U.S. citizens and personnel, special immigrant visa applicants, and other at-risk individuals, including women and children, from Afghanistan. That includes 18 aircraft – three each from American Airlines, Atlas Air, Delta Air Lines and Omni Air; two from Hawaiian Airlines; and four from United Airlines. The commercial planes will not fly into Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, and “will be used for the onward movement of passengers from temporary safe havens and interim staging bases.”