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Thousands more Afghans headed to D.C. area for processing

The National Conference Center in Leesburg, Va. Thousands of Afghan evacuees will be temporarily housed at the center after they arrive in the United States. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
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A new processing center in Loudoun County will open for thousands of Afghans arriving from refugee sites outside the United States, an effort by the Biden administration to expedite nationwide resettlement efforts that was greeted with anger and fear by some residents in the resort-style community surrounding the Northern Virginia site.

At a Thursday night town hall meeting in the Lansdowne section of Leesburg, Department of Homeland Security officials described plans to use the 40-acre National Conference Center for as many as 1,000 Afghans processed there per month before they are moved into permanent homes around the country, including the Washington region.

The new “safe haven” at the privately owned facility, which is normally used for corporate events, is a central piece to a more streamlined phase of Biden administration resettlement efforts that, so far, has placed more than 76,000 Afghans in communities across the country since the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in August.

Robert J. Fenton Jr., who is coordinating the resettlement effort for DHS, told a group of about 200 local residents gathered inside a National Conference Center ballroom that the U.S. military bases used to temporarily house the thousands of Afghans who arrived were not ideal to host such large amounts of people waiting to be processed — often for several months after they arrived with no documents.

“We were putting massive amounts of people in tents just because of the numbers that were coming in,” Fenton told the crowd.

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The Afghans who will arrive at the Loudoun County site — either former interpreters who helped in the U.S. war effort or female leaders, human rights activists or journalists who were evacuated because of likely retribution from the Taliban — will have separate living spaces with their families and a more serene environment as they wait to move on to the next stage of their lives, Fenton said.

Many have already had most of their documents processed abroad, which will keep their stay in Leesburg to between two and four weeks, DHS officials said.

All of those individuals have been vetted to enter the United States — including biometric and biographic screenings and vaccinations for the coronavirus and other diseases — with many of them eligible to receive special immigrant visas that would put them on a path to legal permanent residency, DHS officials said.

“These aren’t people that are strangers to us,” Fenton told the crowd after explaining that the United States is still actively identifying and evacuating Afghans who had put their lives at risk by helping in the war effort.

But many of the residents at the town hall meeting saw the DHS plan as a threat to their quality of life.

Most were angry that their neighborhood, a quiet planned community that features boutique shops and a golf resort, had not been consulted before a contract was signed between the federal government and the convention center owners.

Some residents had practical concerns, such as how local traffic would be affected by what DHS officials said would be five to six busloads of Afghans arriving from nearby Dulles Airport once or twice a week until the operation’s scheduled end in September.

Others marched to microphones set up inside the ballroom with dark theories about who would be housed at the facility, a short walk from two schools — asking whether the arriving Afghans would be able to leave the conference center site (they won’t) and whether there would be extra security set up to prevent any potential crimes (federal guards will be at the conference center, and additional county sheriff deputy patrol cars will be at the two schools).

“You’re putting us at risk!” one man shouted into a microphone. “You’re putting our children at risk!”

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A few residents referenced a Defense Department inspector general’s report released this month that found that an initial lack of information-sharing between U.S. agencies exposed potential security risks when some Afghans who were not eligible to enter the United States went unaccounted for.

A DHS spokesman on Friday said no evacuees were allowed to enter the country until they were cleared through a multi-layered vetting process that begins abroad and is continual.

"The federal government is leveraging every tool available to ensure that no individuals who pose a threat to public safety or national security are permitted to enter the United States,” the spokesman said.

Fenton, Loudoun County Board Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D) and other local and federal officials at the meeting worked to assure the crowd that they would work to make sure the site causes minimal disruptions.

“Our intent is to not impact your community at all,” Fenton said, eliciting guffaws.

John Walsh, general manager of the National Convention Center, said his organization is proud to be involved in the Afghan resettlement effort. Given the blow to corporate business caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the center also needs the contract, Walsh said.

“Corporate, for us, has really gone away,” he said. “Our revenues have dropped significantly.”

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Dean Winslow, a Stanford University medical professor who has helped the Biden administration with its pandemic response, including vaccinating Afghan evacuees, became emotional over the negative comments.

A retired Air Force colonel who served six tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, Winslow delivered an impassioned speech about the U.S. commitment to take care of Afghans who in many cases helped save American lives.

“This mission is so important,” he told the crowd, through tears. “These people are good people, and it means so much to all of us who served that we do the right thing as Americans.”

That drew a standing ovation from members of the crowd who had not spoken.

Abdul Ebadi, 63, was one of them. He fled Afghanistan in 1992, during the chaos that ensued after the Soviet Union ended its occupation there, and now lives in Lansdowne.

Ebadi said he was saddened by most of his neighbors’ comments.

Thinking about a brother and other relatives still in Kabul, he scribbled out his own speech to deliver to the group and headed to a microphone.

“They need help right now,” he said in his speech. “I know it’s hard for the community, but we should do something to help them, and their children.”

As Ebadi finished and went home, more people were lined up to speak against the plan.