© Reuters Members of the U.S. military and Afghan refugees play football at the U.S. Army base at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, USA, September0, September 2021. Via Barbara Davidson / Pool Reuters
Written by Phil Stewart and Mika Rosenberg
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Unexpected things are happening at a US military base to shelter Afghan IDPs: hundreds of them are leaving before receiving US rehabilitation services, two sources familiar with the information told Reuters.
The number of “independent exits” that could be above 700 and above has not been previously reported. But the incident raises fears among immigration supporters about the risk to Afghans who have now abandoned an open, complex and fully voluntary rehabilitation process.
In the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the chaos in August after 20 years of war, many human beings were brought to the United States under the temporary conditions of “human parole”. Once relocated to a U.S. military base, refugee resettlement groups and U.S. officials are trying to connect people to services for a smooth transition to the United States.
In a statement, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) declined to comment on the figures given to Reuters through sources but said those who left the base had “generally” friendly family ties to the United States, and resources to support themselves.
In addition, many of those evicted at the start of the operation were able to leave quickly because they were granted U.S. citizen, permanent resident or special immigrant visas, the spokesman said.
But early departures could have critical benefits for other Afghan IDPs – such as quick work permits – and create many legal problems on the road due to the complexity of the U.S. immigration system.
“It’s a huge can of worms,” said an official with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services on condition of anonymity.
“It could lead to horrendous immigration status problems year after year.”
The benefits that refugees have received are far more limited than what has been offered to refugees so far. But despite opposition from Republicans – it looks like that will change after the law is passed by Congress – which will generally provide more comprehensive assistance to Afghan displaced refugees.
Democratic Senator Jeff Markley said in a statement that “we must do everything in our power to help our Afghan allies start strong in their new home.”
The new law says Afghan asylum applications should be expedited. But those who leave U.S. bases early may not receive all the legal guidance needed to begin their application.
One-way trip offbase
Immigration experts say Afghans who have left the base are not violating U.S. law and that military officials have no legal right to detain Afghans who follow the law in eight places against their will.
The scale of independent exits varies according to the source, according to sources – more than 300 in Fort Bliss, Texas – a figure that could scare both supporters and critics of the U.S. massive rehabilitation campaign.
However, U.S. officials have insisted that all Afghans who have left U.S. bases have already undergone security screenings before arriving in the United States. The risk of an independent exit lies with the Afghans themselves.
Reuters saw a documentary titled “Department of Information”, which was meant to warn Afghans to leave before completing their rehabilitation. It reminds them that, on the ground, they can process their immigration documents and even receive cash to pay for travel to their destination in the United States.
“Once you leave this base, you lose these benefits and may not return,” it said.
Margaret Stock, an immigration lawyer who specializes in military-related matters, said the warning was not motivated.
“I think they’re trying to find people,” he said.
“People who operate bases are justifiably concerned that anyone may not be fully aware of the consequences of wandering around.”
Leaving US bases could be a sensitive issue for Afghans in some parts of the country, particularly given the media coverage of security incidents in Fort McCoy in Wisconsin and Fort Bliss.
But General Glenn Vanhark, head of Northern Command, backed away from the idea that there was a criminal problem at the U.S. base. He told reporters at the Pentagon on Thursday that the number of robberies and thefts was significantly lower than the general US population, with only eight incidents in six weeks.
Asked what was the reason for the limited processing to rehabilitate Afghans, Vanhark said it was not a vaccine or a safety test against measles or coronavirus.
Instead, it was an attempt by U.S. officials to ensure that “every Afghan guest has a great place to land and is assured of where they are going to move.”
“So I understand that right now, the limiting factor of output,” he said.