Bagram Airfield base is seen empty after all U.S. and NATO forces evacuated in Parwan province, eastern Afghanistan, on July 8, as the United State withdrawals all troops from the nation. On Monday, the Biden administration announced it has selected Virginia's Fort Lee to house Afghans fleeing their country out of fear they will be targeted by the Taliban for aiding the United States. Photo by Ezatullah Alidost/ UPI | License Photo
July 19 (UPI) -- Virginia's Fort Lee has been selected to house the first batch of thousands of Afghans fleeing their country after having aided the U.S. military during its two-decade war in the Middle Eastern country, U.S. officials said Monday.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the Department of Defense suggested the location following a formal request from the State Department for assistance on housing the approximately 2,500 Afghans to be relocated to the United States by the end of this month.
Fort Lee will be used as a temporary host site where the Afghans can complete the final steps of their Special Immigrant Visas for individuals who worked as interpreters, drivers, engineers and in other positions for the U.S. military.
Kirby said he expects them to be at the base only a few days for their immigration process to be completed.
"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.
Fort Lee is "an initial location" with the possibility that others may be required, he said.
Those to be housed at Fort lee will be the first relocated stateside under the Biden administration's Operation Allies Refuge plan to evacuate an estimated 70,000 Afghans to the United States, including about 18,000 who worked with the U.S. military.
The operation was announced last week amid the military's exodus from Afghanistan, leaving those who worked in their service at risk of retaliation by the Taliban.
On July 13, a day before the operation was announced, U.S. Central Command said the withdrawal was 95% complete.
Earlier this month, President Joe Biden said the U.S. mission in Afghanistan will conclude on Aug. 31.
Ned Price, spokesman for the State Department, told reporters on Monday that the first tranche of those to be relocated include 700 SIV applicants and their family members.
The department is also currently working to remove another 4,000 applicants and their family members from Afghanistan. These applicants, he said, have passed the main screening process but have yet the finish the final security vetting procedure.
"Our plan is to take them to locations outside the United States, where they will be safe and where they will be provided accommodation during this processing period, which can last a number of months," he said, adding they are striving to shorten that processing time.
Price also said the department officially activated the Afghanistan Coordination Task Force on Monday, which is led by ambassador Tracey Jacobson and consists of experts from the departments of State, Defense, Homeland Security and Health and Human Services to coordinate government efforts to bring the SIV applicants to the United States.
Rep. Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican and the lead GOP member of the House foreign affairs committee, said in a statement Monday that the announcement was "a positive step" but warned Biden that he will have to answer for what will happen to the remaining applicants if agreements with third countries to house them is not completed by the end of August.
Virginia's two senators, both democrats, separately cheered the decision for Fort Lee to house the first Afghans.
"Virginia has a long history of standing up for our military, and those who have risked their lives for our country," Sen. Mark Warner said in a statement. "I applaud the president and his administration for acting to help 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 U.S. mission in Afghanistan."
Sen. Tim Kaine, a member of the Senate armed services committee and the Senate foreign relations committee, said he is "pleased" with the decision and will continue to work to protect Afghans who aided the United States in its military objectives.
The announcement came ahead of an expected vote later this week on the bipartisan ALLIES Act that would increase the Afghan SIV limit by an additional 8,000 visas, which the White House released a note of support for on Monday.