An interpreter follows a U.S. Marine officer prior to moving to another military base in Marjah, Helmand province, southern Afghanistan, on March 21, 2010.

An interpreter follows a U.S. Marine officer prior to moving to another military base in Marjah, Helmand province, southern Afghanistan, on March 21, 2010. MAURICIO LIMA/AFP via Getty Images

First Afghan Interpreters Arrive in Virginia

More than 200 Afghans are expected to spend a week at Fort Lee before being resettled.

The first planeload of Afghan interpreters who helped American troops in combat has arrived in the United States.

More than 200 Afghans, including family members of people who worked with U.S. forces, were on the first flight out of Afghanistan to Virginia, said Russ Travers, the deputy homeland security advisor on the National Security Council. But more than 2,000 other interpreters and dependents  have completed most or all of the security screening and are still awaiting their trip to the United States.

“This flight represents a fulfillment of the U.S. commitment to honor these Afghan’s brave service in helping to support our mission in Afghanistan, in turn helping to keep our country safe,” said Travers, who added that flights from Afghanistan to the United States will continue to relocate translators and their families “over the course of a few weeks.” 

The translators are eligible to come to the United States under the Special Immigrant Visa program, which allows Afghans who helped the U.S. military and consequently face threats from the Taliban to safely leave the country. Since 2008, more than 70,000 Afghans have come to America under the program, Travers said.

This first group of refugees is expected to spend about a week at Fort Lee, an Army base near Richmond, Va., where they will receive a medical checkup before being relocated across the country, said Tracey Jacobson, director of the State Department’s Afghanistan Task Force. Jacobson said she hopes to shorten that wait on the base for future flights. 

There is also a larger group of Afghans who have started the process to get a special immigrant visa, but have not completed the required security checks to come to the United States. The State Department told Defense One that about 18,000 applicants are seeking visas. Each person on average brings three people--a spouse and two children, according to advocates. 

U.S. officials will start moving this group of people “in the coming weeks” from Afghanistan to somewhere outside the United States, where they can be safe from the Taliban while they undergo security vetting and complete paperwork. The Wall Street Journal reported that negotiations are ongoing to use American bases in Kuwait and Qatar to temporarily house these Afghans, but nothing has been finalized. 

The White House has asked lawmakers for $1 billion in emergency funding for the evacuation and resettlement effort, CNN reported.

Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have supported the administration’s plan to make sure the Afghans who helped American troops are safe. The House last week passed a bill to streamline visa processing and boost the number of visas available by 8,000. The chamber also recently passed the Honoring Our Promises Through Expedition for Afghan SIVs Act of 2021, which would waive the requirement for interpreters and their families to get a medical exam in Afghanistan before receiving a visa.

The Senate on Wednesday passed a similar bill that would increase the number of visas and postpone the medical exam. The Afghan Allies Protection Act would also make someone eligible after just one year of employment instead of two, ensure Afghans who provided military logistics support could also participate in the program, and provide visas for spouses and children of Afghan translators who were killed.

Members of Congress are trying to help other Afghans as well beyond those who served alongside the U.S. military. On Wednesday, the leaders of the Democratic Women’s Caucus introduced a bill that would prioritize refugee applications for others facing violence from the Taliban, including women’s rights activists, journalists and human rights advocates. 

“Their valiant fight for their country and ideals is to be commended, but their circumstances are expected to become even more dire as the Taliban’s territorial offensives rage across the country,” caucus co-chair Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said in a statement.

Asked whether the White House is considering also helping this group of threatened Afghans, Travers said they would not be covered by the limited Special Immigrant Visa program, but that there are ways the United States can help. 

“U.S. Embassy Kabul can make referrals to the U.S. Refugee Admission Program for any Afghans who are well known to the embassy and have both imminent and compelling protection concerns,” he said. “This would, by definition, include women’s leaders, activities, human rights defenders, civil servants, [and] journalists.”