Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Fort Lee will accept up to 2,500 applicants and their families who have completed the security clearance process. During their stay at Fort Lee, Kirby added, they will be able to safely complete “the final steps” of the process, including final medical exams and other papers. Kirby added that some of the Afghans may be housed in different locations but declined to provide further details.
President Joe Biden announced earlier this month that evacuation flights from Afghanistan would begin in late July. Afghans seek refuge in the USA through the Special Immigrant Visa Program, which has been supported for Afghan nationals across parties since it was founded in 2009.
The group that goes to Fort Lee includes 700 who qualify for the SIV program; the remaining 1,800 Afghans are their family members.
The special visa program has seen a significant backlog in recent weeks, adding to the urgency of evacuating applicants and placing them in other countries or on the U.S. mainland while awaiting State Department approval for their papers. A total of 18,000 applicants are in the pipeline.
Legislators, urging the Biden government on a more concrete plan to evacuate the Afghan allies, welcomed the decision.
“This is welcome news,” said MP Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), A former Army Green Beret who worked with Afghan interpreters while serving in the country. “But we still have to see details of how the Biden government will get SIV applicants and their families out of all of Afghanistan now that we have no bases or military transports.”
The House will vote this week on laws that will allow applicants to be approved for special visas faster.
The White House said Monday that Biden endorsed this legislation, adding that it “will aid our efforts to streamline the application process by repealing or revising some legal requirements that the government has deemed unnecessary and burdensome while concurrently adequate security clearance is maintained and by increasing the total number of visas available to meet demand. “
POLITICO reported last week that the Biden government was in talks with the Uzbek government to temporarily house the applicants. The US also discussed the matter with the Tajik government, but an informed Congress source said the country was a “no-go”.
The US withdrawal from Afghanistan is almost complete. US Central Command said last week it had completed 95 percent of the withdrawal.
Representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban met in Doha over the weekend as fighting between Afghan troops and Taliban members escalated. Price said Monday that the US “welcomes” the talks and added: “Only a negotiated solution can end the 40-year conflict in Afghanistan permanently.”
Quint Forgey and Lara Seligman contributed to this report.