Fort McCoy welcomes first refugees from Afghanistan

The first group of Afghan refugees fleeing the Taliban arrived Sunday at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin.

According to a news release, special immigration visa applicants, their families and other people at risk arrived at the military installation midway between Sparta and Tomah. More were finalizing their processing at Fort Lee in Virginia.

Around 1,000 service members are working to build out capacity at Fort McCoy in anticipation of more refugees, according to the release.

"We look forward to the opportunity to treat our temporary guests with the utmost respect and Wisconsin hospitality as they commence their Special Immigrant Visa process," the release stated.

In addition to Fort McCoy and Fort Lee, Fort Bliss in Texas is being used as a third staging area in what has been dubbed Operation Allies Refuge as the U.S. continues to evacuate people from Afghanistan.

In an address Sunday, President Joe Biden said the U.S. airlift had evacuated 28,000 people so far, including 11,000 over a 36-hour period this weekend.

Last week, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers said he did not know the specifics of how many refugees could be housed at Fort McCoy but said he had heard the number could be in the hundreds, and possibly "up to 2,000."

Evers said there also will be screening done to make sure those coming to the U.S. have been vaccinated against COVID-19.

"We have had that discussion many times and we have been assured many times that if people haven’t been vaccinated they will be when they get here," Evers said. "The people of Wisconsin are very welcoming, and these Afghan refugees will be people who served with our soldiers side-by-side and have done their fair share, and we want to make sure we do everything we can to thank them for that."

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz also wrote a letter to President Biden expressing his commitment to welcome Afghan refugees.