The Biden administration plans to fly about 2,500 Afghans at risk of retaliation from the Taliban for their work with U.S. troops to a military base in Virginia in the coming days, the State Department said Monday.
The group of Afghans are being flown directly to the United States because their visa applications are nearly complete and have passed security vetting, State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters. The Biden administration earlier informed members of Congress about the planned flights of this initial group.
The Afghans will be taken to the base at Fort Lee, located about 28 miles south of Richmond, where they will undergo a final medical exam. Under the Special Immigrant Visa program, Afghans who worked for U.S. troops or diplomats can qualify for a visa and be resettled as refugees, but the process has been plagued by years-long delays.
“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,” Price said.
Thousands of other Afghans, who also are seeking entry to the U.S. under the Special Immigrant Visa program set up for those who worked for the U.S. government in Afghanistan or Iraq, will likely not be evacuated directly to the U.S. and instead be flown to third countries or U.S. military bases overseas, two defense officials, a U.S. official and a congressional aide told NBC News.
The evacuation effort, dubbed Operation Allies Refuge, is designed to allow for Afghans to finish their visa application process in a safe location.
But lawmakers, veterans groups and refugee rights advocates say the administration has moved too slowly to protect endangered Afghan partners and argue the White House should evacuate all of the roughly 18,000 Afghans who are seeking visas under the SIV program to U.S. territory.
Adam Bates, policy counsel for the International Refugee Assistance Project, said it was “encouraging” to hear that some Afghans would be relocated to the United States.
But he added: “We continue to be concerned about the lack of any announced plan to protect the thousands of other Afghan allies languishing in the years-long application pipeline. The threats they face and their need for protection are no less urgent just because the government has taken so long to process their applications."
Afghans who worked for the U.S. or NATO allies have faced death threats for their association with Western troops, and some have been killed by the Taliban. With U.S. troops withdrawing from the country by the end of August, and Taliban forces gaining ground by the day, advocacy groups say the walls are closing in on Afghans with links to the Americans.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., praised President Joe Biden for the decision to evacuate the Afghans to Fort Lee and said he encouraged “further swift action to help the thousands of other Afghans and their family members who remain at risk because of their support for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.”
Lawmakers are weighing bills that would streamline the visa application process for Afghans who worked for the U.S. government, expand the pool of people eligible and raise the total number of visas to be issued to accommodate the growing number of Afghans trying to leave the country to avoid retribution from the Taliban.
Administration officials have told members of Congress that the Pentagon has identified locations overseas for future evacuations, with temporary housing and other assistance for the Afghans.
Lawmakers from both parties have urged the administration to evacuate them to the U.S. territory of Guam instead of third countries, where their legal status would be uncertain.
In the 1990s, the U.S. evacuated more than 6,000 Iraqi Kurds to Guam after an offensive by Saddam Hussein’s regime. The Kurds had their visa applications reviewed in Guam before they proceeded to the U.S. mainland a few months later.