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Wisconsin Democrats Tour Fort McCoy, Respond To GOP Concerns About Afghan Refugees

Chuck Quirmbach
The Fort McCoy sign outside the main gate.

Top Democrats said some of the thousands of Afghan refugees at Fort McCoy in Western Wisconsin could be re-settled to communities by the weekend. U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin and two House members toured the base Tuesday to counter safety concerns raised by Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, following a visit to the base near Tomah a couple of weeks ago.

Johnson even raised possible terrorism concerns when he spoke to the media outside Fort McCoy on August 25. He said he was suspicious about who the Taliban was letting out of Afghanistan, after taking over the country as the U.S. was withdrawing its troops.

"I just don't see the Taliban in their good graces allowing people who helped the U.S. military in any way, shape, or form. I see them letting people who could be a real problem for us through," Johnson said.

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Screengrab from a Facebook posting by radio station KFDM.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) speaks to reporters outside Ft. McCoy August 25.

Johnson and other Republicans also questioned whether the arriving Afghan refugees were properly reviewed, or vetted. On Tuesday afternoon, following her tour of Fort McCoy, Baldwin responded by saying, "Any insinuation by my Republican colleagues that these refugees are unvetted [is] false."

Chuck Quirmbach
Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and U.S. Representative Mark Pocan (D-Madison) approach the microphones for Tuesday's news conference.

Baldwin said the refugees had been vetted at several stops. "Many of the folks who came started that process in Afghanistan, have the documentation, etc. But, as you know, they were evacuated from Kabul, and there were intermediate stops where everyone was rechecked. Then there was another stop in the U.S. at Dulles [Airport in Virginia where] everyone was checked again. Obviously, they're being processed here," Baldwin told reporters.

Chuck Quirmbach
U.S. Rep. Ron Kind (D-LaCrosse) (center) listens to other officials after Tuesday's news conference.

Western Wisconsin House member Ron Kind, a Democrat who's leaving office at the end of his current term, joined Baldwin at the news conference. Kind mentioned health screenings of refugees and eyeball scans and other body comparisons, known as biometrics, "which has proved extremely effective. So, it's multi-layered, very comprehensive, they [the Biden Administration] are treating it, I'm convinced, very seriously," Kind said.

Madison-area House member Mark Pocan said the refugees are also getting vaccinated. "I think they actually told us one person refused a COVID shot. I wish we had anything like that in our country right now," Pocan said, referring to vaccine opposition in the U.S.

The Democrats dismissed rumors of any measles outbreak, saying one refugee has measles and others near the patient have been quarantined. Democrats also rejected a claim that some of the child refugees are victims of human trafficking.

Baldwin said very few of the refugees at Fort McCoy have been relocated to communities. Still, she said that's expected to ramp up dramatically, perhaps as soon as this weekend, as the Biden Administration works with refugee organizations to mainly place the newly-arrived with others who used to live in Afghanistan.

The politicians' visits to Fort McCoy and other U.S. bases are expected. UW-Milwaukee Political Science professor Kathleen Dolan commented that this is what Congress should be doing. But Dolan said with the 2022 federal elections not that far off, the visits also have a strong political tone.

For example, Dolan said Johnson, who says he's still deciding whether to run next year, went negative, "using it as an opportunity to be critical of the Biden Administration and raise questions, and the specter of problems from Afghan refugees to the United States."

Dolan said Baldwin and the other Democrats are going with a positive attitude.

"She wants to use this as an opportunity to talk about what we do in the United States. We help those who have helped us. We help the less fortunate around the world," Dolan said.

Chuck Quirmbach
A sign on the visitors center door at Fort McCoy describes items needed for the refugee resettlement effort.

Democrats and Republicans appear to agree on one thing -- that the U.S. military and Wisconsin National Guard members helping with the refugees at Fort McCoy are doing a wonderful job.

News reports indicate 7,000-8,000 refugees are at the base, with Representative Kind saying the capacity is 13,000.

News media have not been allowed inside the base and were told Tuesday not to take photos of the main security gate.

Chuck Quirmbach joined WUWM in August 2018. He focuses his longform stories on health, innovation, science, technology, transportation, utilities and business.
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