SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Some incoming Afghan refugees were greeted by two members of New Mexico’s all-female U.S. House delegation, from opposite ends of the political spectrum, at Holloman Air Force Base.
Afghans evacuated in recent days by the American military are largely being processed at U.S. government facilities across the country, including Holloman outside Alamogordo and nearby Fort Bliss in westernmost Texas, before going to resettlement agencies that will determine their final destinations.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury of Albuquerque said Wednesday she felt fortunate to meet at Holloman with an Afghan interpreter who is seeking refuge in the U.S. with a wife and two children, as well as a support group for women seeking asylum in the U.S.
“As these families transition into American life, there are different gender norms here in the U.S. That’ll be part of the journey as well,” Stansbury said of the Tuesday tour of the air base.
Republican U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell recounted her contact with a plane load of about 150 evacuees from Afghanistan as they arrived at Holloman. She said the base is expecting to accommodate 5,000 refugees by Friday.
“They had just landed, so obviously I’m interacting with them,” said Herrell, an Alamogordo resident. “The first thing that happens ... they get refreshment, water, food and then they go to a quick medical screening."
Herrell and Stansbury were accompanied at the base on Tuesday by an Air Force general, a Homeland Security coordinator and State Department official.
Herrell expressed a combination of pride in the humanitarian effort toward resettlement — and trepidation over security vetting procedures for refugees.
“To see a humanitarian effort take shape in this capacity, it touches my heart and it truly makes me proud to be an American," she said.
She described “Herculean” efforts by contractors and military personnel to set up tents with living quarters, including private spaces to accommodate individual families, and provide medical care including COVID-19 testing.
“My biggest concern is the vetting process” for asylum-seekers, Herrell said. “And we pressed the general yesterday on these issues."
Lawyers representing refugees and special immigrant visa holders say the wait time for approval is at least two years while background checks and interviews are conducted.
Herrell says she worries Afghan refugees won't all go through that process, and that U.S. doesn't have access to enough reliable data on Afghan nationals. She opposes any artificial deadlines for security vetting.
Stansbury called those concerns political “talking points," and says she is confortable with the vetting process at multiple stages in the resettlement process.
“They’re not based on the reality of what our armed services and the State Department and the FBI and others are doing to make sure that the people that we helped to evacuate were people that were allies ... people that qualify for resettlement and services here in the U.S.," she said.
Herrell said her concerns about proper vetting do not signal disapproval of resettlement efforts.
"The refugees that are coming here seeking safety and looking for a new way of life, certainly they want to be protected also," Herrell said. “There needs to be a more robust vetting process at these facilities where they’re stopping before they come to America.”
New Mexico has a new slate of first-term representatives in Congress.
In 2018, Herrell flipped New Mexico’s southern District 2 seat to Republican control while embracing then-President Donald Trump’s border wall strategy and espousing a pro-petroleum philosophy in a major U.S. oil-production hub.
Stansbury won a special election in June on a progressive political platform to fill the former congressional seat of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.
Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has offered New Mexico as a ready participant in efforts to assist with Afghan refugees seeking asylum.