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Most of the Afghan refugees at Fort McCoy are not special visa holders
If Your Time is short
The Department of Homeland Security has so far refused to provide an exact account of refugees and their immigration statuses.
That said, Testin’s comments echo media reports and what is generally known about the refugees.
And, it’s important to note, every refugee admitted into the United States was screened and vetted even if they fled Afghanistan without documentation.
Wisconsin is again at the center of a historic refugee resettlement.
The federal government has placed some 12,500 Afghan refugees at Fort McCoy in the wake of the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan as the oppressive Taliban overran the country, sending many scrambling to leave.
It’s the largest influx of displaced people to Wisconsin since the end of the Vietnam War, which led to resettlement of Hmong refugees here and across the U.S.
The U.S. will resettle about 65,000 Afghans this year, the bulk of which are housed already at eight different military installations in the country.
Since the refugees arrived, groups of state and federal lawmakers have visited Fort McCoy, Republicans and Democrats alike, with each side then offering a different picture of the resettlement -- and a different list of concerns.
After an Aug. 25, 2021 visit by Republican lawmakers, the focus was on who the refugees are, what we know about them, and whether they present a threat to the nation as they are resettled.
"I think one of the biggest takeaways for me was finding out the vast majority of the folks coming into Fort McCoy is that they are not the SIVs," said state Sen. Patrick Testin, R-Stevens Point, in an Aug. 29, 2021 appearance on WKOW-TV’s "Capital City Sunday".
"There are other individuals who are at risk, or in some cases have no documentation at all, which is why it’s going to be critical that these individuals are vetted properly."
SIV refers to "special immigrant visas." In this case, that generally refers to a status for Afghans who helped the U.S., often as translators, during its 20-year war in Afghanistan that began after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. It can also apply to their family members.
So, is Testin right that "the vast majority of the (refugees) coming into Fort McCoy are not the SIVs" and some have "no documentation at all"?
To be sure, the exact number of refugees with and without special immigrant visa applications at Fort McCoy -- and how many have no documents at all -- has not been publicly released.
When asked to provide backup for his claim, Testin referenced a private briefing that Major General Darrell Guthrie of the U.S. Army provided Republican lawmakers during their visit. However, he said he did not have any notes or documentation he could share from the meeting.
While Testin aide Jeff Schultz said the information wasn’t classified, officials at the Department of Homeland Security and Fort McCoy declined to provide information about the proportion of SIV to non-SIV refugees at the base.
"DHS does not confirm number of entries in any specific category," Cheryl Phillips, Fort McCoy’s director of public affairs, wrote in an email.
So, we reached out to several people who were at the briefing and know what was said.
Scott Bolstad, a staff member to U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, told us that base officials said Fort McCoy is being used primarily for refugees not in the Afghan SIV program.
Meanwhile, state Rep. Tony Kurtz, R-Wonewoc, provided a time-stamped copy of his personal notes from the meeting that indicated the same.
What’s more, Testin’s claim also tracks with media reports -- including more recent ones, as the breakdown has become clearer.
On Aug. 23, 2021, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported refugees at Fort McCoy included some people with SIV applications as well as green card holders and other types of refugees. No current special immigrant visa holders are at the base, the Journal Sentinel reported on Sept. 3.
But the SIV applicants are far from the only ones evacuated. In addition, the U.S. military also evacuated green card holders, green card applicants, student or business visa holders, refugees and people seeking temporary safety under what’s called humanitarian parole, according to an Aug. 25, 2021 PolitiFact guide on the vetting process for Afghan refugees.
Humanitarian parole allows temporary passage into the U.S. for people who would otherwise be ineligible for admission under typical refugee status.
Immigration officials can bypass the visa process and allow people into the country under this program at their discretion for urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit. Refugees admitted under parole are not granted permanent residency.
Finally, reports from when the U.S. was withdrawing from Afghanistan noted that officials evacuated an estimated 7,000 people who had assisted directly with the war effort. So, nearly every last one of those people would have to be at Fort McCoy for Testin’s claim to be wrong.
Given all of that, it’s fair to say Testin is on track with the first part of his claim.
But did some of the refugees arrive with "no documentation at all"?
That is the second part of Testin’s claim.
To be sure, many Afghans arrived at the Kabul airport with no documentation amid the chaos of the country’s collapse. And, almost without a doubt, some of them wound up at Fort McCoy.
But in making the claim, Testin suggests there was no vetting done of the refugees at all.
It’s important to note, every person that boarded an evacuation flight was screened at an international staging area, such as Qatar or Germany, and screened again upon landing in the United States, CNN reported on Aug. 25, 2021.
The vetting process, even without proper paperwork, included biographic information and biometric data, such as voiceprints, face photos, palm prints and iris scans.
Afghans only arrived at military bases, such as Fort McCoy, after they passed through both initial screenings.
And now here, they also face additional vetting and scrutiny before they are resettled in communities across the country -- or even allowed off the base.
Testin said "the vast majority of the (refugees) coming into Fort McCoy are not the SIVs" and some have "no documentation at all."
While no official numbers have been released, Testin’s comment was corroborated by two people who attended the briefing and tracks with what is known about the refugees in general and at Fort McCoy in particular: Most do not fall into the SIV category.
What’s more, in the chaos of the evacuation, it’s certain at least some have no documentation. That said, Testin’s overall point is undermined by the fact he ignores the vetting that did take place -- and will continue to take place before any refugees are resettled.
That fits our definition of Mostly True.
Aug. 25, 2021, Briefing notes from Wisconsin state Rep. Tony Kurtz
Email interview with state Sen. Patrick Testin Sept. 15, 2021
Email interview with Fort McCoy Director of Public Affairs Cheryl Phillips, Sept. 20, 2021
PolitiFact "How are Afghan refugees being vetted? Here’s what we know," Aug. 25, 2021
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel," Nearly 400 Afghan evacuees to be resettled in Wisconsin, according to state officials," Sept. 15, 2021
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Fort McCoy is now hosting 7,000 Afghan evacuees, but is preparing for as many as 13,000 in the coming weeks," Sept. 3, 2021
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Afghan refugees arriving in Wisconsin have already been vetted by intelligence professionals, White House says," Aug. 25, 2021
CBS News, "U.S. housing 20,000 Afghan evacuees in 5 states, with another 40,000 overseas," Sept. 1, 2021
CNN, "Arriving Afghans without paperwork prompt delays and security challenges," Aug. 25, 2021
The Associated Press, "States learning how many Afghan evacuees coming their way," Sept. 15, 2021
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Most of the Afghan refugees at Fort McCoy are not special visa holders
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