The first group of Afghan war allies arrived with their families in Virginia early on Friday, the day after Congress approved $1.1 billion to support their resettlement and care in the United States.
A plane carrying 206 adults and 15 infants landed at Washington Dulles International Airport in Northern Virginia at 2 a.m. They were driven to the U.S. Army base at Fort Lee, which will process them and eventually thousands of other Afghans, including their families, who served as interpreters, drivers and other helpers of a 20-year American combat mission in Afghanistan that will end in just over a month.
“We feel particularly supportive, even proud, to be the initial place of touching soil in the United States,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., in a news conference outside of the U.S. Capitol on Friday morning.
Fort Lee, a sprawling Army base next to Petersburg in Prince George County, will serve as the logistics hub for the first group of Afghan allies for whom President Joe Biden and Congress agreed to provide refuge. The Taliban is moving to reclaim territory it lost in a U.S. invasion in 2001 after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that killed about 3,000 people in the U.S.
“New lives for long-term patriots,” said Will Fischer, a U.S. Marine veteran of the Iraq War and senior adviser to VoteVets, which he described as an organization for progressive military veterans and their families.
“Joe Biden, just like Sen. Kaine, understands that bringing an end to a war means more than withdrawing U.S. military personnel,” Fischer said. “It means more than bringing equipment back home. It’s about keeping our promises.”
On Thursday, Congress adopted the Emergency Security Supplemental Appropriations Act with money to help Afghan allies travel to new homes in the United States and provide them with medical, housing and other assistance as they transition to their new lives.
The spending bill also included almost $1 billion for the U.S. Capitol Police and the National Guard — including members of the Virginia National Guard — for their roles in responding to the violent insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6 after a rally for then-President Donald Trump to protest the results of the presidential election in November.
“We will continue working in Congress to support our law enforcement, our military, and others who have made tremendous sacrifices for our nation,” Kaine and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said in a joint statement after the unanimous Senate vote on Thursday.
The legislation also increased the number of special immigration visas for Afghans from 11,000 to 19,000. With family members, the program could process 50,000 people, Kaine estimated on Friday.
The U.S. has admitted 70,000 Afghans under the visas since 2008. The bill also provides special immigration status for surviving spouses and children of “murdered” allies.
“We do know that people are vulnerable,” Kaine said.
The group that arrived at Fort Lee on Friday includes Afghans whose request for special immigration status is well-advanced. Some may require only medical screenings before they are resettled in communities in Virginia and other parts of the country, but Kaine said the process will be more complicated for thousands of others awaiting transportation out of their country while their applications are reviewed.
He said the U.S. government is establishing ways to process applications in Kuwait and Qatar, as well as potentially in Kazakhstan and Kosovo.
“We’ll do it as expeditiously as we can, but we also want to do it in a way that protects American security,” Kaine said.
Fort Lee will serve as a “short-term processing center” for Afghans, he said. The base can accommodate up to 2,500 people, but Afghan allies and their families are likely to arrive several hundred at a time.
“It will go on awhile,” he said.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the first group’s arrival under Operation Allies Refuge “demonstrates the U.S. government’s commitment to Afghans who put themselves and their families at great risk by working side-by-side with our service members and diplomats to build a better future for Afghanistan.”
“America has a longstanding tradition of opening our arms to immigrants, refugees, and others, and this flight stands as the latest example,” Blinken said. “We, alongside our civil society partners and tens of thousands of volunteers across our nation, look forward to greeting our Afghan friends and partners.
“It is my great pleasure to say to them: ‘Welcome to your new home.’”