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Welcome to the Hotel Afghanistan

By M.D. Kittle

UPDATED at 10:35 a.m. to include more comment from military spokeswoman.

MADISON —If you’re looking to book a hotel room anywhere near this weekend’s annual Cranberry Festival in Warrens, Wis., good luck.

You’ll find No Vacancy signs in and around Tomah, located about 13 miles south of Warrens, the little village that has long hosted the world’s largest cranberry fest. Warrens welcomes more than 100,000 visitors on the last full weekend in September.

Federal employees supporting the Afghan refugee mission at nearby Fort McCoy are the reason it’s been harder than usual to find room at the inns this year. Empower Wisconsin has heard from a source that some tourists were turned away from their booked rooms to make room for the government workers.

One source says the closest hotels with vacancies from Tomah were 45 minutes to more than hour away — in Mauston, La Crosse,  Eau Claire and Madison.

Everything was basically booked up for the weekend at the Cranberry Country Lodge in Tomah, as of Monday, and the folks at the Americinn said the hotel was full.

Kim Schroeder, general manager of the Cranberry Festival, confirmed that government officials working with the refugees have taken up some of the available rooms but festival organizers are working to make sure visitors find accommodations.

“When we heard that they had canceled a few people, we got on the horn and found what was available and connected people who lost their rooms,” she said.

Cheryl Phillips, director of public affairs for Task Force McCoy — Operation Allies Welcome, sent Empower Wisconsin a couple of documents on the U.S. Army installation’s mission to temporarily house and support thousands of Afghan refugees and Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) holders. None of the documents addressed Empower Wisconsin’s questions, such as how many government employees connected to the mission are staying at local hotels?

In a follow-up email, Phillips confirmed government representatives from “interagency partners” supporting the mission “are staying in local hotels.”

Phillips did not answer whether there are refugees housed in area hotels as they transition from the refugee camp into communities in Wisconsin and across the nation.The Wisconsin Department of Health and Human Services is handles resettlement in the state.

“I’m not authorized to provide the number of Afghans currently at Fort McCoy. We can support 13,000 Afghans,” she said

Earlier this month, military officials reported nearly 9,000 refugees evacuated after President Joe Biden’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan were being housed at the western Wisconsin Army installation. It is one of eight U.S. processing centers of Afghan refugees deemed to have been loyal supporters of the nearly 20-year war in Afghanistan.

As of Sept. 3, about 1,400 soldiers were supporting the refugees, according to media accounts.

The Department of Defense is providing assistance to at least 50,000 Afghans at eight U.S. military installations.

“DoD will provide transportation and temporary housing, care, including meals, medical services, and other daily needs for Afghan personnel at these locations,” the spokeswoman said.

“The application process is different for each person or family depending on where they are in the process, and that will impact how long they will be housed at the respective supporting installation. Fort McCoy will provide housing and support to these Afghan personnel as long as required,” she added.

Empower Wisconsin also sought information on criminal incidents at Fort McCoy and how many refugees have been removed from the site over safety and security concerns.

“In general, Afghan parolees are expected to abide by the laws of the United States, both while in DOD installations and as resettled members of local communities,” Phillips said. “Incidents of criminal behavior on DOD installations are not tolerated and will be referred to law enforcement for appropriate action. Those who violate U.S. law may be put into removal proceedings.”

U.S. Rep. Tom Tiffany (R-Minocqua) on Monday sent a letter to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas requesting answers on vetting procedures of Afghan refugees and information obtained during the process.

“The Biden administration has repeatedly assured the American people that refugees are being fully vetted and screened, though troubling reports of child sex trafficking, polygamy and infectious disease outbreaks have come to light,” Tiffany said in a statement. “These reports, coupled with previous reports of Afghan nationals with possible connections to terrorist groups, only serve to fuel growing doubts about these assurances.”

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