The Biden administration is planning to relocate a group of Afghans who have applied for the special immigrant visa (SIV) program to Fort Lee, a US Army post in Virginia, as the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan nears completion.
This will be the first group of SIV applicants to be relocated from Afghanistan, as part of the Biden administration’s effort to relocate thousands of Afghan interpreters and translators who worked for the United States throughout its nearly two-decade military campaign in the country and now fear reprisal as the Taliban gains ground in Afghanistan.
The relocation could occur as early as this week, according to three sources familiar with the matter.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price confirmed that a pool of visa applicants who are “closest to completing” the process will be relocated to Fort Lee.
Price said that the initial tranche is estimated to include 2,500 people – 700 SIV applicants and their immediate family members.
“These are brave Afghans and their families, as we have said, whose service to the United States has been certified by the embassy in Kabul and who have completed thorough SIV security vetting processes,” he said at a press briefing.
“They will be provided temporary housing and services as they complete the special immigrant process. We expect to begin the first relocation flights before the end of July,” Price said.
He said that the Department of Defense had agreed to house the applicants and their families at the request of the Department of State.
Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said Monday that the applicants would only be at Fort Lee for “a few days.”
“You have to remember that these people and their families are in the very final stages of the SIV process, so there’s just not a need for them to be on a military installation for long before they’ll work through the resettlement process,” he said at a department briefing.
Kirby said the Department of Defense would provide “appropriate housing for both individuals and families, certainly food and water, proper sustenance, appropriate medical care that’s needed when it’s needed, and as much comfort as we can provide them in the short span of time that they’re going to be there.”
The initial group that is being relocated is a small portion of the overall number of SIV applicants – about 20,000 Afghans are in the SIV pipeline. About half of those 20,000 are in the very preliminary stages of the process, meaning “approximately 10,000 of these applicants need to take action before the US government can begin processing their case,” a State Department spokesperson said last week.
The other Afghan applicants who are further along in the process but have not been approved through the security vetting process will go to US military bases overseas or to third countries, the spokesperson said. It is unclear which third countries have agreed to take in the applicants and their families.
Although the news of the first relocation to the US was largely welcomed by lawmakers and advocates, many said it was not sufficient and questions remain about how the administration intends to help the applicants who live outside of Kabul.
“I applaud the President and his administration for acting to help bring these individuals to safety, and encourage further swift action to help the thousands of other Afghans and their family members who remain at risk because of their support for the US mission in Afghanistan,” said Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, where the base is located.
Fellow Democratic Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine said in a statement he was “pleased that the State Department will be bringing an initial group of Afghan SIV applicants to the United States, and that DOD has recommended Fort Lee to house this first group.”
“While this announcement is a positive step towards getting some SIV applicants to safety, the lack of a plan for the remaining SIV applicants still waiting to complete the vetting process is deeply concerning,” GOP Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement.
Last week, the Biden administration announced the launch of “Operation Allies Refuge,” an effort “to support relocation flights for interested and eligible Afghan nationals and their families who have supported the United States and our partners in Afghanistan and are in the SIV application pipeline.”
President Joe Biden announced this month that the military drawdown from Afghanistan would be finished by the end of August, and US Central Command said July 13 that the US had completed “more than 95% of the entire withdrawal process.”
The President vowed “to make sure that we take on the Afghan nationals who work side-by-side with US forces, including interpreters and translators.”
“Our message to those women and men is clear: There is a home for you in the United States if you so choose, and we will stand with you just as you stood with us,” he said.
The administration has faced criticism from bipartisan lawmakers and advocates for not doing enough to protect the Afghans who helped the US and now fear their lives are in danger as the Taliban gains ground and the US nears full withdrawal from Afghanistan.