BY RILEY ROBINSON
Gov. Phil Scott’s administration contacted the White House on Monday to say Vermont is open to taking in additional refugees following the collapse of the Afghan government last weekend.
During his weekly press conference on Tuesday, Scott said the state had sought to convey that it was “ready, willing and able” to accept those fleeing war-torn countries.
Vermont “specifically would welcome any refugees from Afghanistan given the current situation,” Scott’s communications director, Rebecca Kelley, wrote in an email to VTDigger later Tuesday.
“Morally, it’s the right thing to do. And that’s definitely the case in this current scenario,” Kelley said in an interview.
Scott has made similar requests before. In March, his office sent a formal letter to the State Department asking for increased refugee resettlement in Vermont — a request he’s made regularly since taking office in 2017.
In that letter, Scott wrote that out of the 100 refugees Vermont had hoped to welcome to the state in fiscal year 2021, only 26 had actually arrived. That request was couched in financial arguments, which described refugee resettlement as essential to the state’s economic and workforce development.
Kelley reiterated those points Tuesday.
“Additionally, as the governor said, we need more diversity in Vermont, and some of that can be through welcoming more refugees to the state,” she said.
Scott’s chief of staff, Jason Gibbs, made the latest request this week to a senior official at the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, according to Kelley.
The official responded to say the Biden administration appreciated the governor’s offer and would be in touch.
During Tuesday’s press conference, Scott said he agreed with President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan, but disagreed with the rapid pace of the drawdown.
“I think we have a moral obligation to make sure that we protect those who helped protect us for those 20 years who are living in that country,” the governor said.
“And we probably should have stayed a little bit longer to make sure they got out first.”
After the Taliban quickly swept through Afghanistan last week, thousands of Afghans rushed to the airport in Kabul, hoping to flee the country by air. Videos showed Afghans swarming the tarmac and clinging to taxiing jets. Some showed a person falling through the air from a plane as it took off.
At least seven people died at the Kabul airport Monday, Politico reported.
In a speech from the White House on Monday, Biden said he authorized 6,000 troops to secure the Kabul airport and facilitate evacuations.
Pentagon officials plan to evacuate between 5,000 and 9,000 passengers a day, operating up to one flight per hour for the next few days, the New York Times reported.
Some Afghans who worked as interpreters for U.S. troops are eligible for Special Immigrant visas, but the application process often takes years.
Earlier this month, the State Department also announced a priority visa program for other U.S.-affiliated Afghans. This includes Afghans employed by American nonprofits or media organizations, and those who worked as interpreters for the U.S. military, but weren’t employed long enough to qualify for the existing visa program.
Senior State Department officials have said the screening process for the priority visa would still take about 12 to 14 months.
Afghans who plan to use the program would be evacuated to a third country, and would need to wait there while applying for resettlement in the United States.
Speaking after a tour of the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies in Burlington on Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said he had urged the State Department to speed up the process for Afghan refugees.
In June, Leahy led negotiations on a $2.1 billion supplemental spending bill that included $600 million set aside to support Afghan refugee resettlement.
After Tuesday’s event, Leahy also criticized the quality of U.S. intelligence leading up to the withdrawal.
“We poured so many hundreds of millions of dollars into the Afghan army. We assumed that they could cover as we left,” Leahy said in an interview. “I don’t think anybody knew that they, so many of them, would just cut and run.”
Leahy’s rhetoric echoed that of Biden’s speech yesterday, when the president suggested Afghan forces’ quick surrender to the Taliban was due more to a lack of willpower than want of skill or resources.
“We gave them every chance to determine their own future,” Biden said on Monday. “What we could not provide them was the will to fight for that future.”
When asked how the U.S. withdrawal could have been done differently, Leahy responded, “The only way it could’ve been different after 20 years was if the Afghan government stood up for their own people.”