FORT LEE, Va. (WRIC) — Hundreds of Afghans arrived at Fort Lee in Prince George County Friday after being flown from their war-torn home country by the U.S. military.
Over 200 Afghan passengers cleared to fly are expected to stay at the U.S. Army installation for one week as they complete special immigrant visas, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
“This flight represents a fulfillment of U.S. commitment and honors these Afghans’ brave service in helping support our mission in Afghanistan, and in turn, helping to keep our country safe,” Deputy Senior Homeland Security Adviser Russ Travers told reporters in an audio-only briefing call Thursday.
DHS officials said the initial arrivals include a mix of Afghan interpreters, contractors and their families, however the journey for some included in the visa pipeline has been stalled by COVID-19.
“We don’t want to get into exact details, but you know we initially manifest the flight, and then of course some people who test positive for COVID are not allowed to fly and they will have to quarantine and isolate, in accordance with CDC guidelines, before we will put them on another flight,” Amb. Tracey Jacobson, coordinator of Operation Allies Refuge, said.
She did not specify exactly how many of the passengers tested positive for COVID-19, but did note that the final passenger total is more than 200, and less than 250.
After arriving at Fort Lee, the refugees will complete final medical clearance and complete final administrative processing according to Department of Defense Press Secretary John Kirby, who made the admission during a press conference mid-July.
In a statement, Pres. Joe Biden said the the Afghans arriving this week have already passed vigorous background checks, and fitness to fly exams.
“These first Afghans are able to come directly to the United States because they have already completed extensive background checks and security screening by the Intelligence Community and the Departments of State and Homeland Security,” he said.
Jacobson noted that the plan, for now, is to process the first plane load of people in about seven days, but acknowledged “this is the first time we’re doing this, and it’s a sort of big lift.”
“We hope over time to shorten that, but that is our planning horizon for this first flight and we’ll see how it goes, and we will learn from the experience of this first flight and apply it to future flights,” she said.
The Pentagon acknowledged around 2,500 Afghans are under initial consideration for special immigrant visas.
Refugee resettlement officials will work to place Afghans with any family connections they may have in the U.S. No potential resettlement locations were specified for security reasons.
In a press conference Friday, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine (D) said there are already 70,000 Afghans in the U.S. with SIV’s. He noted that many who arrived at Fort Lee will eventually join communities with a strong Afghan presence.
“It is a wonderful day,” Kaine said. “We feel particularly supportive and even proud that we can be the initial place of touching soil in the United States as these Afghan SIV’s and their family members begin a next exciting, challenging, chapter of opportunity in this country.”
Kaine added he plans to visit Fort Lee to speak with families and observe the logistics of the operation, but said “it’s a complicated timeline” due to the various stages of the process.
“We’ll do it as expeditiously as we can but also want to do it in a way that protects American security,” he said.
Many arrivals have moved through the process before coming to Fort Lee and just need medical exams, while Kaine says others are just starting. Kaine noted that the $2.1 billion supplemental spending bill going to Biden’s desk will provide nearly $1 billion in funding for the relocation process, increasing the number of SIV’s from 11,000 to 19,000.
Jacobson confirmed officials are still working to move Afghans who are less far along in the application process “in the coming weeks” to safe harbor, but did not offer a more specific timeline.
She also admitted the State Department does not have the ability to help applicants make the sometimes-dangerous trek from their home towns to Kabul for evacuation flights.
“We do lack the capacity to bring people to Kabul from other parts of the country or to house them in Kabul itself,” Jacobson said.
As for the concern for Afghan women, journalists, human rights activists and others who may be endangered by the Taliban as the U.S. withdrawal is completed, Jacobson noted that “it’s true the administration is considering a variety of different options.” One reporter asked about a program like the ‘Direct Access’ refugee program for Iraqis–which has been suspended for a fraud investigation–but Jacobson would not provide more specific comment.
Sen. Kaine said there are roughly 18,000 applications for special immigrant visas being processed, a figure that could possibly lead to another 50,000 Afghans arriving if you account for family members. Flights carrying about 200 arrivals at a time are expected to come to Fort Lee in the coming weeks, he added.
Biden emphasized that although the United States was withdrawing its troops, the administration intended to continue providing humanitarian aid and support for the peace process. “We call for an immediate reduction in violence in Afghanistan, and for all regional actors to encourage the parties to return to negotiations without delay,” he said.
But the Taliban, emboldened by its success against Afghan government forces, is now demanding the resignation of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, which the Biden administration has dismissed as a possibility.
Travers noted the U.S. Embassy in Kabul can refer Afghans with credible and imminent security concerns to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.
Maxine Howard, a veteran in Prince George, sent the refugees a warm welcome Friday.
“Now it’s our turn to help them because their lives are in harm’s way,” she said. “I hope we can help them to find a better life.”
The veteran said them coming will be mutually beneficial. “We should have open arms and welcome them here because I believe they will be an asset to our community too.”