FORT LEE, Va. (WRIC) — Hundreds of Afghans arrived in the dead of night at Fort Lee in Prince George County 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.
Officials emphasized the Afghans arriving this week have already passed vigorous background checks, and fitness to fly exams.
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.
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.
Travers noted the U.S. Embassy in Kabul can refer Afghans with credible and imminent security concerns to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.