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US Plan for New Center to Process Afghan Evacuees in Virginia Sparks Controversy


Afghan refugees walk alongside temporary housing in Liberty Village at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in Trenton, New Jersey, Dec. 2, 2021. The U.S. government now plans to consolidate sites like this into one in northern Virginia.

The U.S. government aims to open a new center in Northern Virginia to receive additional Afghan evacuees, according to four sources familiar with the matter, although even before any official announcement the local sheriff in the area raised concerns about the plan.

The center is due to open as the government closes down the last of eight sites on military bases that housed tens of thousands of people evacuated from Afghanistan since August. It would be staffed by multiple U.S. agencies involved with the resettlement effort and could be operational by late February or early March, a senior U.S. official told Reuters.

The site being considered is in Leesburg, Virginia, according to two of the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said in a statement to Reuters that it was still working to confirm the location of the center.

The sheriff's office of Loudoun County, where Leesburg is located, issued a statement Thursday saying it was told by DHS that the government planned to bus some 2,000 Afghan evacuees a month, mostly relocating from Qatar, to the National Conference Center (NCC) from nearby Dulles International Airport beginning this month.

Sheriff Michael Chapman raised concerns about a "lack of communication, lack of planning, language barriers" as well as "the NCC's unfenced proximity to a residential neighborhood and two public schools," according to the statement.

DHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the sheriff's concerns. Chapman said he had spoken to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on the matter.

The remaining Afghans currently housed at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey - the last of the eight sites on military bases - are expected to be resettled in communities around the country in the coming days.

Major milestone

The move away from placing refugees in repurposed military installations marks a major milestone in U.S. President Joe Biden's evacuation operation launched as the Taliban overran Afghanistan in August.

About 1,200 Afghans were still at the base, commonly known as Fort Dix, as of Tuesday, DHS said. The agency told Reuters that the base will continue housing evacuees awaiting resettlement until the new processing center is set up.

About 80,000 Afghans have been resettled in the United States as part of "Operation Allies Welcome" in the largest effort of its kind since the Vietnam War era.

The population passing through bases included applicants to the Special Immigrant Visa program, which is available to Afghans at risk of Taliban retaliation who worked for the U.S. government.

Others were admitted to the United States temporarily via "humanitarian parole" with the option to apply for asylum.

The Biden administration has urged Congress to create a more direct pathway to citizenship for Afghans.

Thousands of vulnerable Afghans are still stranded abroad as the U.S. government evaluates their cases and wrestles with logistical challenges to processing their admission.

Eligible Afghans currently in third countries could be allowed entry through an expedited refugee admission process, Reuters reported earlier this month.

But for Afghans still inside Afghanistan the pathways are limited. As of data from mid-February, the U.S. government had only approved around 170 applications out of 43,000 Afghans who have applied for "humanitarian parole" to come to the United States.

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