As Wisconsin expects ‘hundreds to thousands’ of refugees, here’s which lawmakers are helping—and how you can help

COLUMBUS, Wis. — Gov. Tony Evers said in a press conference Wednesday that he’s currently being told to expect hundreds to ‘low thousands’ of Afghan refugees in Wisconsin, but the number is expected to change.

“We’re in constant conversations with the federal government. We’ve heard numbers in the hundreds, we’ve heard 2,000, but that frankly is all conjecture at this time,” Evers said, adding other numbers fluctuated in the ‘low thousands’. “I think this is a moving target.”

The Pentagon announced Wednesday that three military installations, including Fort McCoy in Wisconsin and Fort Bliss in Texas, are authorized to receive up to 22,000 Afghan refugees on Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs), fleeing from Afghanistan in an ongoing evacuation effort following the Taliban’s takeover of the country.

Wisconsin’s only U.S. Army base, Fort McCoy is located on about 60,000 acres of land in Monroe County between Sparta and Tomah and is primarily used for training. The base housed about 14,000 refugees from Cuba in 1980 who fled during Fidel Castro’s rule.

On Tuesday, the White House said more than 3,200 U.S. citizens, permanent residents and Afghan refugees had been evacuated. White House estimates have said there’s up to 15,000 Americans in Afghanistan; unofficial estimates of those who would qualify for SIVs could be as high as 70 or 80,000. The SIV program was launched in 2009 for Afghans who worked for and assisted the U.S. military in roles like interpretation. The Biden administration has expanded the program to apply to others who worked for the U.S. government as well.

Evers said he believes some of the refugees will likely first come to Wisconsin before resettling elsewhere in the country. Ft McCoy is currently preparing to receive and temporarily house the refugees as they’re flown in.

“We have open arms here in Wisconsin,” Evers said, citing organizations like Lutheran Social Services and Jewish Social Services who will help in resettlement.

Wisconsin’s Congressional Delegation: How they are (or aren’t) helping citizens and refugees

Most of Wisconsin’s Congressional delegation of eight representatives and two senators were quick this week to put out statements on the situation, with many of them calling for support for U.S. citizens and refugees evacuating. When each office was asked about what practical efforts they were doing to use their political influence to secure evacuation help for U.S. citizens and Afghan refugees, more than half didn’t respond by the deadline given.

“I’m sure we’ll welcome [the refugees]. Everyone I’ve talked with understands that if you help the United States, we’re not gonna let you sit there and die,” Representative Glenn Grothman (R-06) said. He added his district included a number of Afghanistan veterans, with several of them reaching out with general concerns about interpreters left behind.

But the delegation isn’t united on that front; in a statement Tuesday that did not mention how many of the Afghans who are seeking help are those who face retaliation after supporting U.S. troops during the 20-year war, Rep. Tom Tiffany (R-07) said that bringing “planeloads” of Afghan refugees straight to Wisconsin was “reckless and irresponsible.”

He called reports of thousands of Afghans coming to the U.S. “disturbing”, saying “Afghanistan is a dangerous country that is home to many dangerous people.” Instead, he wants them vetted in other countries, and local officials’ consent obtained to resettle in communities. His office did not respond to questions about what practical measures they were taking to assist U.S. citizens and Afghan refugees in evacuations.

Other Republican Congressmen, while denouncing the Biden Administration’s handling of the withdrawal, said their offices were actively trying to help interpreters and others get help. Staff for Rep. Mike Gallagher are in direct contact with State Department officials helping a number of U.S. citizens as well as translators get SIVs and evacuate. Rep. Glenn Grothman said his office is working directly with three people, including a Wisconsin permanent resident and interpreters, needing help evacuating.

“We have had former military personnel in Afghanistan who have expressed special concerns about interpreters that they worked with,” Grothman said. “We have forwarded these names, and the State Department is aware of them, they are trying to contact them. Obviously things are chaotic in Afghanistan, but they will try to get these men out of the country.”

Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin’s office has put people in contact with the U.S. State Department for SIV processing, a spokesperson said. A spokesperson for Sen. Ron Johnson said his office had put people in touch with the DOS for repatriation and SIVs as well.

“I think our priority has to be, one, getting our U.S. citizens back and two, the Afghans that worked with us especially in the last 20 years that now would be seriously at risk,” Rep. Mark Pocan (D-02) said. “We have an obligation to them and their families.” Pocan said he had been in touch with the Jewish Social Services organization in Madison about resettlement, but wasn’t aware of whether his office had directly assisted anyone in evacuation.

Wisconsin’s history with refugees

From 2001 through 2019, Wisconsin welcomed 313 refugees from Afghanistan, according to state data, with about a third of them resettling in Dane County. In total, 12,332 refugees arrived in Wisconsin from 40 different countries during that time frame. Overall arrivals dipped in 2018 and 2019 under the Trump Administration to fewer than 600 refugees each year, the data showed, even while the number of arriving Afghan refugees peaked in 2016 and 2018.

Republican governor Scott Walker made headlines in 2015, declaring that Wisconsin would reject any refugees from Syria. He and state lawmakers called on the Obama Administration to ban them from entering the country.

In 1980, Fort McCoy housed about 14,000 refugees from Cuba who fled during Fidel Castro’s rule, a move that provoked headlines like this one first published in the La Crosse Tribune that said as many as 90% of them were criminals and mental patients, a result of Castro clearing his prisons and mental institutions.

Central Wisconsin is home to one of the largest communities of Hmong in the U.S., in a story reminding many of what’s happening now in Afghanistan. They fled from Vietnam and Laos and began arriving in 1976, under threat of persecution for helping the U.S. military.

How you can help

There’s still a lack of clarity on exactly how and where incoming refugees will be resettled. The federal government will likely provide for their immediate needs while they’re temporarily housed at Fort McCoy, but it’s unclear to what extent the state government will step in to help resettle.

The Wisconsin Department of Children and Families houses the state’s refugee programs, using federal grants from the Office of Refugee Resettlement to provide services like finding jobs, translation, English teaching, transportation, case management, and more.

But a DCF spokesperson says that while Afghan refugees who ultimately resettle in Wisconsin would be eligible for those services, it’s unclear what role the state will play in the meantime–something they’re waiting to get more information on from the federal government.

In the meantime, however, the DCF provides a list of ways that Wisconsin residents looking to help out can do, such as volunteering and donations. The DCF also works with local resettlement agencies who are also preparing to help refugees, like the Jewish Social Services in Madison.

Note: This article was updated to include unofficial SIV-eligible estimates, as well as Sen. Ron Johnson’s response which was provided the day after publishing.