WASHINGTON - A special flight for some 200 Afghans who qualify for Special Immigrant Status (SIV) arrived Friday in the United States as part of an operation to evacuate those who provided help to the U.S. government.
"Today is an important milestone as we continue to fulfill our promise to the thousands of Afghan nationals who served shoulder-to-shoulder with American troops and diplomats over the last 20 years in Afghanistan," U.S. President Joe Biden said in a statement. "I want to honor all those in the United States who have spoken out on behalf of these brave Afghans, including the proud community of veterans, who have consistently advocated for the Afghans who were by their side in the field in Afghanistan, often serving as translators and interpreters."
White House officials announced Operation Allies Refuge on July 14, saying it would offer safe haven to Afghan interpreters and others who assisted the U.S. government during the war, along with their families, who now fear retaliation from the Taliban.
"These brave men and women, at great risk to themselves and their families, served alongside U.S. and coalition forces and diplomats to support our operations and prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorism that threatens our homeland," Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement Friday.
Senior Deputy Homeland Security Adviser Russ Travers of the National Security Council told reporters that the flight "represents the fulfillment of the U.S. commitment and honors these Afghans' brave service in helping support our mission."
'Touching soil' in the US
U.S. officials said the first flight included about 200 people with SIV status and their family members. Some 700 more who have completed the SIV process will be evacuated in the next few weeks.
They will now spend the next week at Fort Lee, an army base in Virginia, to undergo medical exams and finalize paperwork before being relocated. The U.S. Senate passed and sent to President Biden a supplemental security bill that allocated millions of dollars to increase the number of Special Immigrant Visas from 11,000 to 19,000 while lowering the number of employment years required with the American military from two to one year.
Senator Tim Kaine, a democrat from a Virginia district that includes Ft. Lee, said Friday a hotel on the base will process up to 2,500 Afghans. "We feel particularly supportive and even proud that we can be the initial place of touching soil in the United States as these SIVs and their families the next exciting challenging chapter of opportunity in this country," Kaine said Friday at a news conference. He was a co-sponsor of the Afghan Allies Protection Act and says he will soon visit Ft. Lee and the refugees.
In the next few weeks, officials will start moving SIVs and families who are not as far along in the system to what Jacobson termed a "third party location" where they will undergo more scrutiny for visa approval prior to receiving safe haven in the United States. Senator Kaine described the locations as Kuwait and Qatar or possibly Kosovo and Kazakhstan.
Those on the first flight who have family connections will be placed with them, others through the U.S. State Department's Refugee Admissions Program.
"America has a longstanding tradition of opening our arms to immigrants, refugees, and others, and this flight stands as the latest example," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement Friday. "We, alongside our civil society partners and tens of thousands of volunteers across our nation, look forward to greeting our Afghan friends and partners.
According to the State Department, the first group of refugees has undergone fitness testing and has been tested for COVID-19. Should anyone test positive, they will be quarantined prior to traveling.
"We have offered vaccines in Kabul to those who are interested in having them, and we will also be offering those vaccines at Fort Lee," said Ambassador Tracey Jacobson of the State Department Afghanistan coordination task force.
Other Afghans are not approved for travel yet but are being processed in the SIV system.
An Afghan man who spoke with VOA said emails indicate he has been in processing status for four years.
It's estimated that about 2,500 remaining qualified Afghan nationals will eventually be evacuated to the U.S. and the unnamed location.
One refugee group praised the effort as an "historic moment when our nation put its core values into practice to keep a sacred promise to its allies." But Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, described Operation Allies Refuge as "woefully insufficient" and called for a full evacuation. "To date, there is simply no clear plan as to how the vast majority of our allies will be brought to safety."
More than 70,000 Afghans resettled so far
The original SIV authorization was signed into law in 2008 by then-President George W. Bush and was intended to give Iraqi citizens safety in the United States. Since then, the government has settled more than 70,000 Afghans with SIV status in the United States.
The State Department says others at risk of Taliban retribution - including women's rights leaders, activists, journalists, human rights supporters and others - can appeal to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, which can make recommendations to the Refugee Admissions Program.
The SIV resettlement program is expected to continue after U.S. troops complete their withdrawal from the longest war in the country's history. By Sept. 1, the military has said, the remaining American troops in Afghanistan are expected to be focused on guarding the U.S. Embassy and the Kabul airport.