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As Afghan refugees settle into Fort McCoy, Ron Johnson raises concerns over their vetting, identity

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U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson questioned the status of Afghan refugees Wednesday during a visit to Fort McCoy, bashing the Biden administration and repeatedly asking if all arrivals had been fully vetted. 

Johnson said during his visit he saw numerous refugees, and that since Sunday, over 1,000 men, women and children had arrived at the base, are receiving meals, medical care and staying in barracks. Johnson said he was told the military installation could host up to 10,000 people in the coming weeks, as the U.S. military works to evacuate allies and other vulnerable people from Afghanistan.

During his visit, Johnson said he got the impression that those who have arrived were happy to be there. 

“It sounds like the first group of people that arrived are just relieved to have been able to escape Afghanistan. They won the lottery, they’re here in America,” he said. “The vast majority are here wanting what we want, the opportunity to raise their families in safety and security, with opportunity.”  

Alongside Johnson, several state lawmakers visited the base, including Sen. Patrick Testin, R-Stevens Point; Rep. Tony Kurtz, R-Wonewoc; and Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green. 

But while the Republican lawmakers seemed to greet the refugees with questions, Democrats like Gov. Tony Evers welcomed them, saying the state is prepared to welcome them and ensure a smooth transition into the U.S. 

Johnson repeatedly raised concerns over the vetting process being used by the U.S. to allow the refugees into the country, calling the Biden administration’s assurance that everyone was being vetted “lipstick on a pig,” saying they are trying to cover up mistakes. 

“Maybe they’re taking biometrics, but you need biometrics taken beforehand that you can compare them to,” he said. “It would be nice if we knew everyone even just had an identification card, but I’m hearing they don’t.” 

All of those coming into the U.S. from Afghanistan have gone through security vetting before entering the country, White House officials said Monday. Upon arrival, all are tested for COVID-19. Those who test positive will have access to space to quarantine. 

Officials are also working to ensure all refugees have access to COVID-19 vaccines, as well. 

Once the refugees arrive at Fort McCoy, they are subject to a full health exam to ensure their wellness.

Fort McCoy is located on 60,000 acres between Tomah and Sparta. 

The massive evacuation from Afghanistan is one of the largest airlifts in history, and in order to get people to safety, Fort McCoy is one of the places accepting refugees and giving them temporary shelter before a resettlement agency can help them. 

Refugees began arriving at the fort on Sunday, after fleeing the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Those coming to the base are a mix of those with Special Immigrant Visa applications that have reached a certain point in the acceptance process, submitted by those who worked along U.S. troops in Afghanistan, as well as other vulnerable populations being evacuated, including women, journalists professors and attendees of girls’ schools. 

About 1,000 service members from multiple units of the U.S. Army and Army Reserve are slated to assemble at the base to provide support to the refugees, in a mission dubbed “Operation Allies Refuge.” 

MORE: Afghan refugees arriving in Wisconsin have already been vetted by intelligence professionals, White House says

Originally, Wisconsin was expected to receive up to 2,000 refugees at the base, but the population at the base will fluctuate as people come and go. Refugees won’t be housed there long-term, but will stay until resettlement agencies can help find individuals and families new homes either in Wisconsin or elsewhere, depending on whether they have family in the country, job proximity or other needs. 

Johnson has expressed support for mission Fort McCoy accepted earlier this month, although he said he was disappointed in how the Biden administration handled the situation in Afghanistan. 

“In the midst of the disastrous abandonment of our allies in Afghanistan, I am glad that some will be able to reach safety in the U.S.,” he said on Twitter last week. “I’m confident the military personnel at Fort McCoy will fulfill their role with dedication and professionalism.” 

MORE: ‘I am deeply disturbed’: Rep. Tom Tiffany slams Biden plans to accept Afghan refugees

But other Republicans have expressed concerns. U.S. Rep. Tom Tiffany issued a scathing release about the arrival of Afghan refugees, claiming they were “unvetted” and a risk to the U.S. 

“I am deeply disturbed by reports that as many as 5,000 Afghans per day are headed to the United States — many without valid visas or even basic identity documents,” Tiffany said. 

Johnson expressed his disappointment with the plan executed by President Joe Biden and his administration for pulling out troops, which led to the advancement of the Taliban. 

“What’s happening is a travesty,” he said. “It’s a disaster.”

Johnson said the administration should be focusing only on evacuating Special Immigrant Visa applicants and family, and people that can personally be vouched for by U.S. military members.

“Part of the problem is that we are granting them a certain immigration status, it’s a legal status,” he said. “Once they’re here, which means they’re here as a result of what this administration is doing they’re entitled by law to certain immigration benefits. So what happens if someone comes to this country, and they’re on, for example, a terror watchlist?” 

Johnson said he’s concerned that the Taliban are only allowing certain people into the Kabul airport, which is the only place in the country still held by the U.S. military, and those certain people may have been selected by the group for a reason. Currently, refugees and American citizens are being evacuated through the airport, to third-party countries before being flown to the U.S. 

“I don’t have a great deal of confidence in the Taliban being humanitarians all of a sudden. This is a brutal regime,” he said. “I see them letting some people in that could be a real problem for us. Yes, it’s a nasty reality, but we have to face that.” 

Kurtz, who is a veteran, said it’s important to get those who worked alongside the U.S. out of Afghanistan because the Taliban is a dangerous group.

“The vast majority of them are here for the right reason, but all it takes is one and we’ve got to make sure we do our due diligence,” he said. “We need to take time, one they get out of harm’s way to make sure we’re getting the right people and doing the proper vetting.” 

Democrats weigh in on refugees 

Johnson and the other state lawmakers weren’t the only ones to weigh in on the Afghan refugees in Wisconsin. 

Joined by military officials, such as U.S. Northern Command Gen. Glen VanHerck and Maj. Gen. Paul Knapp, adjutant general of the Wisconsin National Guard, Gov. Tony Evers toured Fort McCoy Wednesday, separately from Johnson. In a statement, Evers said he spoke with Afghan people in addition to service members and leaders. 

“Our allies from Afghanistan have a long road ahead of them, and Wisconsin will continue to extend our support and assistance to these individuals who bravely contributed to our country’s efforts over the past two decades,” he said. “I am proud of the good work they are doing at Fort McCoy and Volk Field to respond to and assist our federal partners. Wisconsin remains ready and prepared to continue to help in any way we can to ensure a smooth, safe, and successful transition for our Afghan allies.” 

At an event in Madison, Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin said she was proud of the role Fort McCoy is playing in resettling refugees.

“I feel we have a moral obligation not only to return the nationals who are at risk because of the advocacy for women’s rights, children’s rights, (non-government organizations), but also the Afghans who have stood by us, translated for us, have done many other things to help our troops and our mission,” Baldwin said at an event focused on voting rights at the headquarters of the Urban League of Greater Madison.

Laura Schulte can be reached at leschulte@jrn.com and on Twitter at @SchulteLaura

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