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First flight of Afghan interpreters fleeing Taliban arrives in U.S.

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The first group of about 200 Afghans seeking refuge after aiding the U.S. military in their homeland arrived in the United States overnight and will finish their visa application process at Fort Lee in Virginia. President Biden was quick to welcome them.

The group of special immigration visa applicants consists of former interpreters and others who helped U.S. forces in the 20-year war in Afghanistan. The applicants and their families are the furthest along in the immigrant visa process and only need a few days before relocating within the U.S., officials say. 

About 750 principal applicants and their families are expected to come to the U.S. in coming weeks as part of the administration’s Operation Allies Refuge, which is tasked with evacuating Afghans who face threats from the Taliban for helping the U.S.

Mr. Biden said in a statement that the flight was “an important milestone as we continue to fulfill our promise to the thousands of Afghan nationals who served shoulder-to-shoulder with American troops and diplomats over the last 20 years in Afghanistan.”

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He said he wanted to heed the calls from military veterans, diplomats and others in the U.S. who have urged the U.S. to bring the Afghans to a safe place.

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“Most of all,” the president said, “I want to thank these brave Afghans for standing with the United States, and today, I am proud to say to them: ‘Welcome home.'”

All the Afghans on the flight have received a COVID test and were offered COVID vaccines in Kabul. They will be offered vaccines again at Fort Lee.

Mr. Biden announced in April that the U.S. would withdraw from Afghanistan by September 11, then moved the deadline up to August 31.

There are approximately 20,000 special immigrant visa applicants attempting to relocate to the U.S.

The initial group has gone through the most security vetting but is just a fraction of the applicants trying to get out of Afghanistan. 

The administration is still looking for third country locations where the Afghans who are not as far along in the process can be relocated.

Operation Allies Refuge is an interagency process that includes officials from the State Department, Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security. 

The task force behind Operation Allies Refuge told reporters Thursday that the operation will continue after the U.S. officially withdraws at the end of August. That is one of the reasons the administration has emphasized the importance of keeping the embassy in Kabul open. Some U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan after the drawdown for the security of the embassy.

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Congress passed a security bill Thursday that among other things adds money to the program. The legislation includes a provision from Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire that expands the number of authorized visas and shortens the application process.

Over 70,000 Afghans have received visas and started new lives in the U.S. since the special immigrant visa program began in 2008, according to U.S. officials.

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