Last Afghan evacuees prepare to depart Defense Department installations in US

Afghan refugee girls watch a soccer match near where they are staying in the Village at the Ft. McCoy U.S. Army base on September 30, 2021 in Ft. McCoy, Wisconsin.

By Priscilla Alvarez, CNN

(CNN) -- The last several hundred Afghan evacuees who have been living on domestic military bases are expected to depart those installations over the next week, according to a Homeland Security official, marking an end to part of a months-long operation to resettle tens of thousands of Afghans.

For many Afghan nationals who arrived in the US following the frenzied evacuation of Afghanistan, their first stop was a domestic military base. Last fall, there had been more than 50,000 people at military bases in the United States, but after extensive processing and vetting, they have gradually moved to communities across the country.

The Biden administration used eight Defense Department installations to support the resettlement of Afghans. Now, only two remain: Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, and Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey. Officials previously told CNN the administration was on track to resettle Afghans to their new communities in the US by mid-February.

"It's gone as well as it can go given how difficult the circumstances have been," said Mark Hetfield, the president and CEO of HIAS, a refugee resettlement agency, citing challenges like the housing crunch in the US. "The State Department has shown extraordinary flexibility in trying to welcome Afghans as best they can."

There are still around 2,800 Afghans at so-called "lily pad" locations overseas that the US used to process evacuees prior to their arrival to the US. When those evacuees wrap up processing, they may go to a new location in the US operated by the federal government or to their final destination, the DHS official said.

The effort -- dubbed "Operation Allies Welcome" -- has been a heavy lift for the Biden administration in the wake of a dismantled refugee resettlement infrastructure that struggled to stay afloat amid record low admissions under former President Donald Trump.

The Biden administration has pushed to increase its resettlement capacity across agencies. The State Department has enabled resettlement agencies to enter into partnerships with service and relief organizations. There have also been efforts to launch a private sponsorship program. And the Department of Health and Human Services is working with states to help welcome Afghans through existing state emergency management structures.

There are also new efforts to "shift more of our processing overseas," with officials currently finalizing plans to consolidate safe havens at an off-base location outside the US in Doha, Qatar, for processing before being moved to their new communities. The hope is that it would "minimize the amount of processing" for individuals once they have arrived in the US, part of a broader effort to reduce processing times.

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