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Department of Homeland Security to oversee entry of Afghans into U.S.; refugee agencies brace for mammoth task ahead

Aug. 30, 2021 Updated Mon., Aug. 30, 2021 at 5:44 p.m.

People evacuated from Afghanistan board a bus after arriving at the Rome Leonardo da Vinci airport, Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Italy’s final evacuation flight of refugees from Afghanistan has landed ain Rome. The Italian Air Force C-130J with 58 Afghan citizens aboard arrived on Saturday morning some 17 hours after it departed from Kabul airport and after a programmed stopover.  (Mauro Scrobogna)
People evacuated from Afghanistan board a bus after arriving at the Rome Leonardo da Vinci airport, Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Italy’s final evacuation flight of refugees from Afghanistan has landed ain Rome. The Italian Air Force C-130J with 58 Afghan citizens aboard arrived on Saturday morning some 17 hours after it departed from Kabul airport and after a programmed stopover. (Mauro Scrobogna)
Andrea Castillo Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration has designated the Department of Homeland Security as the lead federal agency charged with facilitating the entry of Afghans into the United States. Refugee resettlement groups say the process has been too slow but they remain hopeful the nation is up to the task.

DHS will coordinate efforts across federal agencies to resettle vulnerable Afghans, including those who worked on behalf of the U.S. That includes immigration processing, COVID-19 testing, quarantine of people who test positive and support for evacuees who are not U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents, according to the White House.

Mark Hetfield, CEO of the Jewish humanitarian organization HIAS, said the coordination of federal agencies is progress but not enough to make up for what appears to be a lack of earlier planning.

Hetfield said the effort to resettle Afghans is unprecedented based on the scale and level of U.S. interest. Since the Refugee Act of 1980, the U.S. has responded to smaller-scale evacuations, such as the turmoil in northern Iraq in 1996 and the Kosovo conflict in 1999.

“What’s infuriating about this is it should have been part of the withdrawal plan,” he said. “This is all the effect of the U.S. withdrawal. And there’s no question that you could have planned for this.”

DHS spokesman Angelo Fernández Hernández said the agency has been working on resettlement of Afghans for a long time under special immigrant visas. Recent developments affected the magnitude and speed of the process, he said.

Some evacuees will be temporarily housed at U.S. military bases before relocating to communities across the country. Seven bases have been tapped to hold thousands of refugees, according to the Department of Defense: Fort Lee in Virginia, Fort McCoy in Wisconsin, Fort Bliss in Texas, Joint Base McGuire-Dix in New Jersey, Fort Pickett in Virginia, Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia, and Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico.

All U.S. troops have left Afghanistan, the Department of Defense announced Monday afternoon.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said the U.S. is committed to helping people leave Afghanistan beyond Monday. The U.S. has evacuated roughly 110,000 people from Kabul since the Taliban overthrew Afghanistan’s government, Blinken said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“The very significant majority of those people are Afghans, and of those Afghans who’ve been evacuated, there are thousands upon thousands who are special immigrant visa program members — that is, the people who worked side by side directly for our diplomats, directly for our troops over the years,” he said, adding that a full breakdown of who has been able to leave will be available in the days ahead.

Spojmie Nasiri, an Afghan American immigration attorney in the San Francisco Bay Area, said several of her clients are stuck in Kabul and more resources are needed to assist those arriving in the U.S. “You don’t get people out in 11 days,” she said. “We’re going to see the catastrophe of this for decades to come.”

DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced Sunday that Robert Fenton Jr. will lead the interagency Unified Coordination Group. Fenton has served as a regional administrator for FEMA since 2015 and has been involved in responding to disasters including Hurricane Katrina and the 9/11 World Trade Center terrorist attacks since he joined the agency in 1996.

“This mission reflects the best of who we are as a country,” Mayorkas said in a news release.

Hetfield said he worries things will only get more chaotic for people who remain in Afghanistan now that U.S. troops are gone. He also wonders what will happen to those with U.S. ties who were evacuated to other countries.

“There’s too many questions and not enough answers right now,” he said.

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