The first group of Afghans who helped the U.S. war effort and now face threats to their lives has departed Afghanistan en route to the United States.
A group of more than 200 Afghans who worked for the United States and their families departed Kabul on Thursday to fly to Fort Lee, Va., where they will finish the final steps of the visa application process, administration officials told reporters.
“I am immensely proud to announce our first group of Afghan special immigrants to be relocated under Operation Allies Refuge is now on their way to America,” Russ Travers, deputy homeland security adviser, told reporters Thursday. “This flight represents a fulfillment of the U.S. commitment and honors these Afghans’ brave service helping support our mission in Afghanistan, in turn helping to keep our country safe.”
“We, along with our civil society partners and tens of thousands of volunteers across our nation, look forward to welcoming these friends and partners to their new communities in the United States,” he added.
The first flight is part of a larger group of 2,500 Afghans — 700 who served as interpreters, plus their families — who have completed most of the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) application process and are being evacuated to the United States for the final steps in the process.
The remainder of the 2,500 are expected to be relocated “over the course of a few weeks,” Travers said.
“Their arrival is the culmination of an enormous effort across the U.S. government and one that is a high moment of our careers,” he said. “So many of us have deep personal connections, whether we served at Embassy Kabul, worked alongside these Afghans as diplomats or service members or worked to advance the Afghan peace process.”
The Biden administration formally launched what it’s calling Operation Allies Refuge earlier this month amid increasing pressure from lawmakers in both parties and advocates to evacuate Afghans who helped the United States and are at risk of being killed by the Taliban after the U.S. completely withdraws.
Those coming to Fort Lee have already “completed rigorous security background checks,” Travers said.
The Afghans were tested for COVID-19 before leaving, were offered vaccines in Kabul and will be offered vaccines again at Fort Lee, said Tracey Jacobson, who is overseeing Operation Allies Refuge for the State Department. They also completed a “fitness to fly” medical exam, she added.
The Afghans are expected to stay at the Army base for about a week as they complete a final medical check as required by law, as well as some final Department of Homeland Security processing, Jacobson said.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM), with assistance from the State Department’s refugee office, will help find places to relocate the Afghans around the United States once the screening is done, Jacobson said. If any of the Afghans already have a familial or other connection somewhere, the agencies will try to relocate them there, but otherwise they will go where IOM has the capacity for them, she added.
“We’re very much looking forward to our Afghan colleagues taking their first steps as new immigrants in our country,” she said.
The U.S. military is about 95 percent done withdrawing from Afghanistan after nearly 20 years, and President Biden has set an official deadline of Aug. 31 for the end of the withdrawal.
Amid the withdrawal, the security situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating, and U.S. military officials have said the Taliban is now in control of roughly half of the country’s districts.
With fears of a Taliban takeover mounting, the calls from lawmakers and advocates to evacuate Afghans who helped America during its longest war have become increasingly urgent.
Congress created the SIV program to allow Afghans who served as interpreters for the U.S. military to apply to come to the United States, but the program has been beset by delays for years.
An estimated 18,000 applicants are already awaiting visas, with an estimated 53,000 family members seeking to accompany them. The application process can take as long as 800 days.
Congress has been working to add visas to the program and streamline the application process. As part of a larger spending package passed by both chambers Thursday, Congress approved adding 8,000 visas to the program, removing some hurdles for applicants and providing about $1.1 billion to fund evacuations.
While lawmakers and advocates have praised the Biden administration’s initial evacuations, they have also continued to express concerns about the administration’s plans, or lack thereof, for the thousands of other applicants.
In particular, lawmakers and others have been raising alarms about Afghans who live outside Kabul and do not have the means to travel to the capital or could be caught by the Taliban during the journey.
Administration officials have said Afghans will have to get to Kabul themselves, with Jacobson telling reporters Thursday that “we do lack the capacity to bring people to Kabul from other parts of the country.”
State Department officials have said they are also working on evacuating about 4,000 applicants and their families to places outside the United States. This group already has what’s known as “chief of mission approval,” but has not completed the more rigorous security screening those coming to Fort Lee have.
“We’re going to continue to work on this,” Jacobson said. “We’re going to continue to relocate eligible SIV applicants and their families, who have our gratitude for their service.”
“While we’re focused on this initial group of applicants who are very far along in their SIV process, bringing them to the United States,” she added, “we are also looking in the coming weeks to start moving people are who less farther along to a third country location, so that they can be safe while their visa processing continues.”