After the biggest military evacuation in history, the Biden administration will now resettle more than 60,000 Afghan refugees inside the US over the next several weeks. To accommodate them, eight military bases have transformed into “small cities,” as one Defense official put it.
About 17 percent of those who have already arrived are US citizens and lawful permanent residents and can head to their destination without first passing through military bases. The rest, however, will go to bases to receive medical screening, including Covid-19 vaccinations, before they’re relocated to communities around the country.
It’s unclear how long the stay will last. Evacuees are expected to remain on the bases for at least two weeks, according to senior administration officials, though it’s likely that could extend well beyond that as they get set up with their medical checks, work permits, and other services.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin previously said some evacuees will leave quickly because they’re further along in processing, while others won’t. “This will take months to play out, I think,” he told reporters.
Already, two babies have been born on the bases. On Friday, two girls were born on 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 recently arrived in the US, prompting the administration to temporarily pause flights of Afghan refugees to the US.
The eight military bases being used to house Afghan refugees have a total capacity of 50,000 to house evacuees. The installations consist of housing, either in barracks or hard-sided tents, as well as cafeterias where daily meals are provided that are culturally appropriate, recreational space and medical clinics.
At Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey, barracks are split into villages. Each village is outfitted with a cafeteria, a health center, and places where people can pick up donated clothes and shoes. Villages have also set up their own councils with Afghan leaders who meet jointly with military officials on the base, according to a senior administration official.
By the end of September, the administration is anticipating the arrival of 65,000 Afghan refugees. Another 30,000 are expected in the next 12 months. It’s an extraordinary number of arrivals, compared to the last four years when admissions hovered around 2,000 a month, a steep decline from previous administrations.
“The biggest challenge is that everyone is here all at once. It’s not the way the program is set up,” an administration official told CNN.
The last time the US resettled anywhere close to this number of evacuees within such a short period was after the US troop withdrawal from Vietnam, when more than 130,000 people came to the US over an eight-month period.
An historic number of migrants at the US-Mexico border has already overwhelmed two of the federal departments at the center of Afghan resettlement, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Homeland Security. The domestic resettlement infrastructure is also under strain after years of low admissions under the Trump administration that resulted in agencies shuttering offices and losing staff.
The Biden administration requested $6.4 billion in additional funds from Congress this month to bolster capacity and extend assistance to Afghan evacuees who partnered with the US during the war in Afghanistan.
To run the effort, President Joe Biden tapped former Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, who has set up an office in the Executive Office building at the White House, according to senior administration officials who added that Biden is being briefed and receiving information about the operation regularly.
Officials have also stood up an operation at the Department of Homeland Security headquarters with multiple federal agencies, including US Customs and Border Protection, the FBI, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the State Department, among others, to design and manage the operation, to troubleshoot issues that might arise and coordinate logistics.
“The mission at hand is grand,” one Homeland Security official told CNN. “It’s likely one of the most important missions any of us will ever work on.”
Refugee resettlement agencies, which are also in frequent communication with the administration, are similarly preparing to support Afghans once they’re ready to depart military bases.
“This is unlike any effort to resettle people who have been displaced from their homes to the US in modern history,” said Nathan Bult, senior vice president of public and government affairs at Bethany Christian Services.
A system under stress
The US immigration system was already buckling under the pressure of arrivals at the southern border. The Health and Human Services Department, which is charged with the care of migrant children, scrambled to find shelters to accommodate an unprecedented number of minors arriving at the US southern border unaccompanied. And the Department of Homeland Security, responsible in part for border security, surged resources to assist border authorities.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas recognized that the department’s resources were “indeed stressed” in a recent news conference, while maintaining that the department would overcome any challenges.
More than 150 personnel from US Citizenship and Immigration Services — an agency under DHS — have been deployed to military bases in the US to help process applications. And approximately 400 DHS personnel were deployed overseas to help with processing.
The nine refugee resettlement agencies who work in coordination with the federal government will ultimately determine where Afghans are relocated, based on whether they have US ties or where their local affiliates have capacity to take them in.
The Biden administration is regularly coordinating with those groups to relocate Afghans when ready, and resettlement staff is assisting on site at military bases.
“Top of mind for us is getting good data and making sure we know who’s where and what their needs are,” said Jenny Yang, senior vice president of advocacy and policy at World Relief.
Refugees and special immigrant visa holders — a visa for Afghans who were employed by or worked on behalf of the US government — have access to a range of short and long-term services to get up on their feet, from help with housing and employment to cash and medical assistance. But parole, while providing some reprieve, doesn’t unlock services that refugees receive.
According to DHS, most Afghan nationals will be paroled into the US on a case-by-case basis and may be eligible to apply for immigration status.
Under the so-called Afghan Placement and Assistance Program set up by the State Department, the federal government will provide a one-time payment of $2,275 for each Afghan an agency serves, of which $1,225 is available for agencies to use for direct assistance like housing and basic necessities. Agencies also help with tasks, such as enrolling children in school and orienting individuals with new communities.
While those services may help Afghans to start, senior administration officials have underscored the need for additional funding from Congress, calling the request sent this month “really critical.”
Since Biden took office, refugee resettlement agencies have worked to ramp up their operations to accommodate a greater number of refugees but they still face a long road ahead.
“Even in the best of times, this would’ve been a stretch,” said Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, a refugee resettlement agency.
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