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Gianforte welcomes Montana-bound evacuees fleeing Afghanistan
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Gianforte welcomes Montana-bound evacuees fleeing Afghanistan

Gov. Greg Gianforte on Thursday said he would welcome the 75 Montana-bound refugees fleeing the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, provided they are “fully vetted” by the federal government.

The governor’s office declined to specify what vetting measures he deems appropriate, but spokesperson Brooke Stroyke said in an email that Gianforte “expects the Biden administration to fully vet Afghans who seek to live in the U.S.”

On Wednesday, the Biden Administration began notifying states of how many Afghan evacuees to expect as it works to resettle about 37,000 people across the country.

Eamon Fahey, the deputy director of the International Rescue Committee office in Missoula, said the 75 Afghan refugees will be arriving in Montana during the coming months, starting as soon as early October. All of them will be entering the state as “humanitarian parolees,” an immigration status being granted to some at-risk Afghan refugees who weren’t able to obtain official refugee status or complete the application process for a Special Immigrant Visa before entering the U.S.

“The reason they’re called ‘parolees’ is there’s not enough time, they’ve managed to leave Afghanistan and there’s not enough time to go through the application process,” Fahey said. “Some of them will also be people who helped out American efforts, whether they be military efforts of helping out with NGOs, media companies and things like that.”

The SIV program has experienced a significant backlog since the U.S. began withdrawing from Afghanistan, as thousands of Afghan citizens who fear reprisal from the new Taliban government have applied to the program. The Biden administration recently authorized the use of the humanitarian parole status to speed up the process of evacuating at-risk Afghans.

In a statement Thursday, Gianforte re-upped his prior criticism of President Joe Biden’s withdrawal from America’s longest war, calling it “ill-planned” and “catastrophic,” while stating that “Montana welcomes our fully-vetted Afghan allies who worked alongside us, have left their homes in the face of the Taliban's reemerging, merciless terror and seek freedom and safety.”

Gianforte has previously criticized refugee resettlement in Montana, including during his 2016 bid to unseat then-incumbent Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock. During that campaign, he argued his opponent was undermining the safety of Montanans by leaving the door open to Syrian refugees escaping the humanitarian crisis in that country, where the U.S. was also militarily involved.

Stroyke didn’t respond to a question asking if anything has changed in the federal government’s vetting procedures to lead Gianforte to trust the process now.

Montana’s congressional delegation also weighed in on the State Department announcement, with all three members tying their comments to “proper vetting.”

Katherine McKeogh, a spokeswoman for Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, wrote: “The senator believes we need a full and robust vetting process for refugees entering our country. We also need to honor our troops’ wishes and support those who put their lives at risk to assist U.S. service members, and the senator encourages Montanans to welcome the properly vetted brave men and women, our allies, to the state.”

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, the lone Democrat in the delegation, staked his support for Montana accepting Afghan refugees on the vetting process, speaking Thursday during a press conference in Helena.

“These folks have been fully vetted, to my understanding,” Tester said. “They are people who helped us on the ground, saved lives and gave us information we would not have otherwise had. I think we have an obligation to treat them right because they helped us and so, as I’ve said before, as far as communities taking them in, I think communities have the last say in that. And they have to be OK with it … but I think there are plenty of communities in the state that are open to taking in some of these refugees, so yeah, if they’re fully vetted I’m OK with it.”

U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale, however, condemned the federal government's efforts to resettle refugees in the U.S. The freshman Republican was one of just 16 representatives of the 435-member U.S. House who voted in July to oppose an increase in the number of visas granted to Afghans, targeted to those who helped U.S. forces.

“Following the Biden administration’s disastrously mismanaged withdrawal from Afghanistan, I warned that we could not use this administration’s incompetence to justify flooding our communities with unvetted refugees,” Rosendale wrote in a statement. “… The mass evacuation of over 100,000 Afghan nationals in a matter of weeks has made proper vetting of these individuals near impossible. At this time, it appears extremely unlikely the Biden administration properly vetted the Afghan nationals being resettled in Montana.”

The International Rescue Committee office in Missoula is the state’s sole resettlement agency, assisting newly arrived refugees and other immigrants to find housing, food and employment, and providing other services to help them navigate life in their new home.

Fahey said he’s been heartened by the positive response by Montanans who have welcomed refugees into multiple communities in the past.

“I’m very proud to see that backing from our fellow Montanans,” he said. “I think it’s the welcoming Montana spirit that I certainly expect, and I’ve been very pleased to see that.”

The Legislature last session approved using $767,000 in federal pass-through dollars to refugee programs in Montana over the next two years. After a budget panel initially moved to cut the funding, Sen. Kenneth Bogner, a Miles City Republican and Iraq War veteran, led the push to restore the money in the state budget.

— Missoulian reporter Zoë Buchli contributed to this story.

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