By Dan Lamothe | July 19, 2021 | Updated yesterday at 6:33 p.m. EDT
The Biden administration is planning to temporarily house about 2,500 Afghans fleeing unrest in their home country at Fort Lee, Va., with expansion to other military bases possible in the future, U.S. officials said Monday.
The Army post, about 25 miles south of Richmond, will serve as a way-station for Afghans who have passed the State Department’s screening for special immigrant visas, said John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman. The group includes interpreters who worked alongside U.S. troops in Afghanistan and their family members.
“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, so just a few days,” Kirby said.
He said Fort Lee is “just an initial location” that could be used for Afghans who will be resettled, but he declined to name others.
Ned Price, a State Department spokesman, said that the administration has activated a task force that includes experts from several government agencies to take qualified applicants out of harm’s way and to the United States “once security vetting is complete.”
About 4,000 other applicants have received a lower level of approval for visas from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Price said. The administration plans to take those individuals to safety in other countries, where they will be provided with accommodations that “can last a number of months.”
“We are striving to shorten these processing times at every stage,” Price said, adding that the administration is “surging” additional U.S. government employees to get involved in the process.
U.S. officials have said previously that they are reviewing using military installations in the Persian Gulf region to house interpreters who are earlier in the visa-review process. Few details have been released.
The effort comes after President Biden decided in April to end the U.S. military’s mission in Afghanistan after nearly 20 years at war. He has said the withdrawal will be completed by the end of August, though defense officials said it is effectively over now.
The administration did not detail on Monday how it will screen thousands of additional visa requests quickly. Some Afghans have reported having their requests denied despite working alongside U.S. troops for years, and not being provided with a clear explanation for why they were rejected.
Rep. Michael McCaul (Tex.), the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s top Republican, called Monday’s news a “positive step” toward getting the Afghans to safety. But he said the lack of a plan to get remaining visa applicants out of harm’s way is “deeply concerning.”
“This has been an extremely haphazard withdrawal from the beginning and the Biden administration’s inability to provide a detailed strategy on how they will support and protect our remaining Afghan partners is unacceptable,” McCaul said.
Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, praised the administration’s decision to bring the first approved applicants to Virginia, and urged “swift action” to help thousands of others who are still in harm’s way because they worked with the U.S. government.
“Virginia has a long history of standing up for our military, and those who have risked their lives for our country,” Warner said.