First Afghan refugees arrive at new center in Virginia

Ben Fox
Associated Press

Washington – A first group of Afghan refugees have arrived at a new temporary housing facility in Northern Virginia as the U.S. works to resettle people who fled the Taliban takeover of their country in August, the Department of Homeland Security said Wednesday.

Afghans arriving from overseas will stay at the National Conference Center in Leesburg, Virginia, until they can be placed in more permanent housing around the country with the assistance of private resettlement organizations, DHS said in a statement announcing their arrival at the new facility.

Afghan refugees who arrived in the U.S. as part of Operation Allies Welcome were housed until February at military bases around the country for up to several months as they awaited resettlement. Those arriving now include people who managed to get out of Afghanistan after the U.S. withdrawal and have been at overseas military bases.

Families evacuated from Kabul, Afghanistan, walk through the terminal before boarding a bus after they arrived at Washington Dulles International Airport, in Chantilly, Va.m Aug. 27, 2021.

Those who arrive at the center, which is normally used as a corporate training facility, have already undergone medical and security screening overseas. While in Leesburg, they will complete immigration applications and participate in workshops on U.S. laws and civic education, the official in charge of OAW, Robert Fenton, said in the statement.

“We will continue to work closely with state and local partners to ensure we can continue to resettle our Afghan allies as quickly, safely, and successfully as possible,” Fenton said.

The first group of about 300 came to the conference center on Tuesday and are expected to stay for two to four weeks, said Angelo Fernández Hernández, a DHS spokesman. The center has a capacity for 1,000.

More than 76,000 Afghans have come to the U.S. since the fall of their government to the Taliban in August.

A majority have so far settled in communities with established Afghan communities, including Northern Virginia and the surrounding D.C. area; Northern California and Texas. Their resettlement has been slowed by a shortage of affordable housing and cuts to the refugee program under the Trump administration, among other factors.

DHS has previously said about 40% of the Afghans will qualify for the special immigrant visa for people who worked as military interpreters or for the U.S. government in some other capacity during America’s longest war.

Most of the rest, however, do not yet have permanent legal residency in the U.S. because they did not come under a refugee program but were admitted under a type of emergency federal authorization known as humanitarian parole.

Advocates for the refugees, including a number of prominent veterans groups, are pressing Congress to provide permanent residency with an “Afghan adjustment act,” similar to what has been done in the past for Cubans and Iraqis.

Operation Allies Welcome is expected to run until later this summer, at which point Afghans will be processed through the existing U.S. refugee program.