The Biden administration on Saturday relocated the last group of Afghan evacuees from a military site in New Jersey, completing the first phase of a historic, six-months-long operation to resettle vulnerable Afghans in the aftermath of the abrupt collapse of the U.S.-aligned government in Kabul. 

As part of the largest U.S. resettlement effort in decades, the Biden administration established a network of short-term housing hubs at military bases overseas and across the U.S. last summer to quickly process tens of thousands of Afghans who were deemed to be at risk of harm in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

U.S. officials used “lily pads” at military sites overseas to vet and process Afghans airlifted from Kabul last summer, and set up eight temporary housing installations known as “safe havens” at domestic bases to vaccinate the new arrivals against contagious diseases and finish their resettlement processing.

The U.S. gradually closed the domestic military processing sites as it worked with non-profit resettlement agencies and groups of private citizens to resettle Afghans in over 200 communities across the country. 

Afghan children play soccer with U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Scott Nussel, a cultural awareness specialist, outside a temporary housing in Liberty Village on Joint Base McGuire-Dix- Lakehurst in New Jersey on December 2, 2021.

Barbara Davidson/Reuters

The remaining evacuees housed at Joint Base McGuire–Dix–Lakehurst, New Jersey — the last of the safe havens to wind down operations — departed the site on Saturday morning, joining 76,000 Afghans who have relocated to their new communities in the U.S., the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced.

Bob Fenton, a longtime Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) official who was tapped to oversee the inter-agency Afghan resettlement effort, called it the largest government operation of its kind.

“I’ve worked for FEMA for 25 years, going to disasters,” Fenton told CBS News. “This is, by far, the largest, most complex event I’ve been involved in, from evacuating 85,000 people from more than halfway around the world into 10 military bases in the Mideast and Europe, and then to eight bases here in the United States.”

Eight facilities at military sites in the U.S. offered evacuees halal food, faith-based services, English language instruction, vaccination against the coronavirus and other diseases like measles, assistance with immigration paperwork, and medical services, including for pregnant women and those who were medevaced.

The domestic housing sites, which were established at Army bases, Air Force installations, National Guard posts and Marine Corps stations in six states, also provided recreation and some schooling to children, whom Fenton noted made up about 40% of all evacuees. 

“Think about running eight small cities,” Fenton said. “Everything that comes along with a city we had to provide for a population that was very vulnerable.”

Out of more than 67,000 Afghans processed at the domestic bases, over half — or 35,128 evacuees — have been resettled in Texas, California, Virginia, Washington, Pennsylvania, New York, Florida and Arizona, according to unpublished government statistics obtained by CBS News. 

Colorado, Massachusetts, Maryland, Illinois, Oklahoma, Missouri, Michigan, Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio, Minnesota, Nebraska and Kentucky have received 21,331 evacuees, resettling more than 1,000 each. On the other hand, South Dakota, Mississippi, West Virginia and Hawaii have all resettled 22 Afghans combined, while Wyoming is the only state that is not expected to receive evacuees.

“I think the biggest lesson for the administration to take away from this operation is that the American public is overwhelmingly in support of immigrants and refugees being a part of their communities,” Ali Noorani, president of the National Immigration Forum, told CBS News.

“The children are very happy here”

Ahmad Zaki Babakarkhil, who said he worked at an American military base in Afghanistan before the Taliban takeover, lived at a processing site at Fort Pickett, Virginia, alongside his wife and three children for several months after being airlifted out of Kabul last August and spending some time in Qatar and Germany. 

The evacuee family is temporarily living in an apartment in northern Virginia listed by Airbnb, which set up a program to find short-term homes for evacuated Afghans. Babakarkhil said his family has left their temporary home only on a few occasions, mostly to go grocery shopping. But he said they’ve felt a sense of freedom and safety in Alexandria.

“The children are very happy here,” Babakarkhil told CBS News through an interpreter. “In Afghanistan, the parents were not available for the children. Whenever they go out for a walk or to play in the park, the children say, ‘I wished we were here from the start.'”

Afghan evacuee children participate in social and emotional art initiatives run by Mural Arts after arriving at the Philadelphia International Airport in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S., October 25, 2021.

Hannah Beier/ Reuters

Timothy Young, a spokesperson for the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a faith-based group that is resettling Babakarkhil and his family members, said a lease for permanent housing was recently signed, noting the family should be able to move there in the coming days.

As soon as they can move in, Babakarkhil said he’s hoping to enroll the children in school and learn new skills to find a job using a work permit provided by the U.S. government.

But Babakarkhil expressed concern about the uncertainty regarding his family’s legal status. 

Like most Afghan evacuees, Babakarkhil’s family entered the U.S. under a temporary humanitarian program known as parole, not through the refugee process, which takes years to complete. While it allows them to work and live in the U.S. legally, parole does not make evacuees eligible for permanent residency.

U.S. officials have determined that some Afghans are eligible for permanent residency because they or their immediate family members aided the American war effort, but at least 36,000 evacuees lack a pathway to permanent status, leaving them in legal limbo unless they qualify for asylum or Congress legalizes them.

Fenton, the DHS official coordinating the resettlement operation, urged Congress to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act, which would allow evacuees to apply for permanent residency directly, bypassing the asylum program, which has a backlog of 412,000 unresolved cases. 

He called the Afghans brought to the U.S. last year “special,” noting many of them worked alongside American forces during the 20-year war in Afghanistan.

“We, as Americans, need to help accept them in, help them get situated and welcome them to the United States, as they’ve had a difficult journey and deserve our help, as they’ve helped us over the last decade,” Fenton said.

While the evacuee sites at domestic bases have been demobilized, DHS officials said they are working to set up a non-military processing hub in the U.S. for future Afghan arrivals. The U.S. is also still housing and processing 2,800 Afghans at bases in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, the latest DHS figures show.

The U.S. has received over 43,000 humanitarian parole requests from Afghans in Afghanistan or third countries hoping to enter the country. U.S. officials have adjudicated fewer than 1,700 of these parole applications, denying 90% of them, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) data.

“It is vital that the administration recognizes each of these 40,000 cases represent a life threatened or a family seeking reunification,” Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, told CBS News. “The administration must keep its word and act with urgency to process these applications.”