(Trends Wide) — Following the largest military evacuation in history, the Biden government will resettle more than 60,000 Afghan refugees within the United States in the coming weeks. According to a defense official, eight military bases have been transformed into “small towns.”
About 17% of those who have already arrived are US citizens and legal permanent residents and can make their way to their destination without going through military bases first. The rest, however, will go to the bases to undergo medical examinations, including the application of vaccines against covid-19, before being relocated to communities across the country.
It is unclear how long their stay will last, but the evacuees are expected to remain at the bases for at least two weeks, according to senior administration officials. Although it is likely to take much longer than that while the medical examinations, work permits and other services are prepared.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin previously said that some evacuees will leave quickly because they are further along in the process than others. “I think this will take months to develop,” he told reporters.
Two babies have already been born on the bases. On Friday, two girls were born at the bases: one at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico and the other at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin. Four cases of measles, a highly contagious virus, have also been discovered among Afghans who have recently arrived in the United States, prompting the administration to temporarily suspend Afghan refugee flights to the United States.
The eight military bases that are being used to house the Afghan refugees have a total capacity of 50,000 people to house the evacuees. The facilities consist of dwellings, either in barracks or rigid tents, as well as cafeterias where culturally appropriate daily meals are offered, recreational spaces and medical clinics.
At Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey, the barracks are divided into villages. Each village is equipped with a cafeteria, a health center and places where people can pick up donated clothes and shoes. Villages have also created their own councils with Afghan leaders who meet jointly with the base’s military officers, according to a senior administration official.
By the end of September, the administration anticipates the arrival of 65,000 Afghan refugees. Another 30,000 are expected in the next 12 months. It is an extraordinary number of arrivals, compared to the last four years, when admissions were around 2,000 a month, a sharp decline from previous administrations.
“The biggest challenge is that everyone is here at once. It is not the way the program is set up,” an administration official told Trends Wide.
The last time the US resettled a similar number of evacuees in such a short period was after the withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam, when they arrived in the country. more than 130,000 people in a period of eight months.
A historic number of migrants on the US-Mexico border has already overwhelmed two of the federal departments that are at the center of Afghan resettlement, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Homeland Security.
The national resettlement infrastructure is also under pressure after years of low admissions under the Trump administration that resulted in agencies closing offices and losing staff.
The Biden administration this month asked Congress for $ 6.4 billion in additional funding to strengthen capacity and expand assistance to Afghan evacuees who collaborated with the United States during the war in Afghanistan.
To lead the operation, President Joe Biden has turned to former Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, who has set up an office in the White House Executive Office building, according to senior administration officials, adding that Biden is being briefed on operation regularly.
The officials also established a command center at the headquarters of the Department of Homeland Security with multiple federal agencies, including U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the FBI, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, for its acronym in English) and the Department of State, among others, to design and manage the operation, solve problems that may arise and coordinate logistics.
“The mission in question is huge,” a Homeland Security official told Trends Wide. “It is probably one of the most important missions any of us will work on.”
Refugee resettlement agencies, which are also in frequent communication with the administration, are similarly preparing to support Afghans once they are ready to leave military bases.
“This initiative is unlike any other in modern history to resettle people displaced from their homes in the United States,” said Nathan Bult, senior vice president of government and public affairs for Bethany Christian Services.
A system under tension
The US immigration system was already reeling under pressure from arrivals at the southern border. The Department of Health and Human Services, in charge of caring for migrant minors, was quick to find shelters to host an unprecedented number of unaccompanied minors arriving at the southern US border. And the Department of Homeland Security, Responsible in part for border security, increased resources to assist border authorities.
Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas acknowledged at a recent press conference that the department’s resources were “certainly stressed,” although he maintained that the department would overcome any challenge.
More than 150 staff members from the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, an agency under the Department of Homeland Security, have been deployed to US military bases to help process applications. And approximately 400 people from the department were deployed abroad to help with the processing.
The nine refugee resettlement agencies working in coordination with the federal government will ultimately determine where Afghans will be relocated, based on whether they have ties to the United States or where their local affiliates have the capacity to host them.
The Biden government regularly coordinates with these groups to relocate Afghans when they are ready, and resettlement personnel provide on-site assistance at military bases.
“The most important thing for us is getting good data and making sure we know who is where and what their needs are,” said Jenny Yang, senior vice president of advocacy and policy for World Relief.
Refugees and holders of a special immigrant visa, a type of visa for Afghans who were employed or worked on behalf of the United States government, have access to a number of short-term and long-term services to get on their feet, from help with housing and employment to cash and medical assistance. But the humanitarian visa, while providing some breathing space, does not unblock the services that refugees receive.
According to DHS, most Afghan citizens will receive a humanitarian visa in the US on a case-by-case basis and will be able to apply for immigrant status.
Under the so-called Afghans Placement and Assistance Program, created by the State Department, the federal government will provide a one-time payment of US $ 2,275 for each Afghan served by an agency, of which US $ 1,225 is available for agencies use them for direct assistance, such as accommodation and basic needs. The agencies also help with tasks such as enrolling children in school and orienting people to new communities.
While these services can help Afghans get started, senior administration officials have stressed the need for additional funding from Congress, calling the request sent out this month “really critical.”
Since Biden took office, refugee resettlement agencies have worked to scale up their operations to accommodate more refugees, but they still have a long way to go.
“Even in the best of times, this would have been an exaggeration,” said Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, a refugee resettlement agency.