As of Friday, more than 8,000 refugees from Afghanistan were being temporarily housed at Fort McCoy and the military base, which had originally been asked to provide capacity for 10,000 evacuees, was being asked to extend its capacity to 13,000 by this past Sunday.
At an on-background briefing at Fort McCoy last Thursday, a senior army official representing Task Force McCoy explained Fort McCoy is one of several bases in the United States processing Afghan refugees since the Taliban took control after the United States withdrew.
“We were identified early to do this mission,” the army official said, adding that as a training facility that accommodates nearly 150,000 soldiers per year, Fort McCoy has the perfect set up to take on this mission.
President Joe Biden directed the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to lead implementation of ongoing efforts across the federal government to support vulnerable Afghans as they safely resettle in the U.S.
The coordinated efforts are being referred to as Operation Allies Welcome. At the President’s direction, the Secretary of Homeland Security has been working with representatives from across the government to coordinate its response and the implementation of a broad range of services, including initial immigration processing, COVID-19 testing and isolation of COVID-positive individuals, additional medical services and screening, and support for individuals who are neither U.S. citizens nor lawful permanent residents.
The U.S. has evacuated over 125,000 individuals from Afghanistan over the past few weeks; 6,000 of those individuals are U.S. citizens.
According to a State Department official, the U.S. government is conducting the screening and vetting of Afghans at pre-designated locations prior to their arrival in the United States, in an effort to protect national security and provide protection for vulnerable Afghans.
“No one is coming directly from Afghanistan to Wisconsin,” he said. “People are coming through places like Germany and staying for a short period of time and then after being vetted at those intermediate sites, they are traveling on to the United States.”
DHS has deployed approximately 300 personnel from a broad list of entities to conduct the vetting in coordination with the Departments of Defense and State and other federal agencies.
The refugees at Fort McCoy are first flown into Volk Field before they are bused into the military base in Monroe County. Fort McCoy personnel have been tasked with ensuring the Afghans have appropriate sleeping quarters, meals, and facilities for interagency partners to provide other necessary services.
“Our goals here are to take care of the immediate humanitarian needs that they have, make sure that they have access to medical care, shelter, hot meals and the daily necessities of life,” said the state department official.
He added that the real goal is to receive the refugees and provide medical screening that would be part of the typical immigration process such as standard childhood immunizations and treatment to any underlying medical conditions.
“Some of the people who are arriving here are in pretty rough conditions right now and they’ve been through an extraordinary experience with a lot of emotional trauma,” the official said. “It’s a significant effort. We have DOD doctors and medical staff on the ground as well as civilian medical staff.”
The senior army official said refugees are being housed in two-story buildings with 30 people per floor. Outdoor spaces have been created for children to play and the refugees are starting to get outside and take walks.
“It’s actually a really beautiful location,” the state department official said. “They’ve built a community together, and they’re processing what they went through together.”
While at Fort McCoy, the Afghan refugees are also receiving immigration processing. There is a large contingent of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) staff at Fort McCoy.
“People are going to receive authorization to work in the United States. When they are paroled in, they have legal status from the time they arrive at port of entry, but what we’re doing now is what would have been part of the visa process,” said the state department official. “We’re getting them set up for their new life in the United States and then they will move on.”
It hasn’t been fully determined how long refugees will remain at Fort McCoy, however, the official said it will not be a matter of days in most cases, but more likely a matter of weeks. Officials are careful not to put any more precision than that on the matter.
Afghans who have completed the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) process and their dependents will be assisted by the Department of State and non-governmental organizations to begin their resettlement process.
Those individuals who have not finished the SIV application process, are paroled in by the Department of Homeland Security while their SIV applications are adjudicated, or they determine whether to apply for another immigration status through USCIS.
“People will go to all 50 states in communities across our country where local sponsors will help welcome them and set them up in a new life,” the state department official said. “Our response is to prepare them to move on and help them transition to the next chapter of their lives in America.”