Posted on September 1, 2021

Wisconsin Towns Await Influx of Afghans — And Wonder What It Will Mean

Cleve R. Wootson Jr., Washington Post, August 28, 2021

Fort McCoy’s Facebook page lit up in the hours after officials there announced that thousands of Afghan refugees would be coming to the Army base. In an instant, the website turned into an impromptu public forum as news spread that the largest airlift in U.S. history would affect a pair of blue-collar communities in western Wisconsin.

Some people wanted to know how they could donate blankets, warm clothes or canned goods to desperate strangers. Others worried that their community would face problems rooted in a chaotic withdrawal that, until a few days ago, was 7,000 miles away.


As the frenzied withdrawal from Afghanistan races toward an Aug. 31 deadline, the number of refugees at Fort McCoy is increasing by the day. The surrounding communities are watching warily, with the recent deaths of 13 Americans in Kabul only adding to the anxiety. Up to 10,000 Afghans could ultimately pass through the base, according to Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.).

It’s still unclear whether the effect of the Afghan refugees on this part of Wisconsin will extend past the tall metal gates of the century-old installation. Yet residents are nursing concerns big and small: Will Afghan children share schoolrooms with local children in a district already short-staffed and contending with the coronavirus? Has the government properly vetted people fleeing a place known to harbor terrorists?

And while the Biden administration says the refugees will ultimately be settled throughout the country, residents here wonder: How long will western Wisconsin be playing host?


Among those with the most at stake are local school officials. Educators in the Tomah Area School District do not know whether they will be expected to help teach Afghan children, said Superintendent Mike Hanson, who is mulling contingency plans in case he suddenly faces an influx of students who speak only Pashto or Dari.

It won’t be easy. The district is already facing a teacher shortage, and attracting qualified educators to rural Wisconsin can be a challenge. The entire district has only one teacher of English as a second language — and this is her first year.


Johnson and other Republicans toured Fort McCoy on Wednesday and blasted the president, saying the disarray in Afghanistan reflects his incompetence and questioning his ability to handle the resettlement of refugees. They noted that leaders at the fort had just 10 days to prepare for thousands of newcomers who must be housed, fed and provided with medical care.

But Johnson said his chief concern is whether the federal government has adequately vetted the Afghans during the hectic withdrawal — or even has a reliable way of identifying them. {snip}

Wisconsin State Senate President Pro Tempore Pat Testin (R) wrote to Gov. Tony Evers (D) complaining that Biden’s “precipitous and poorly planned actions” show his administration is not up to the task of executing the largest airlift in American history without doing enduring harm to places such as Monroe County.


Americans strongly favor aiding Afghans, polls suggest. Some 81 percent said the United States should support those who helped the United States, according to a CBS News-YouGov poll published on Aug. 22. Johnson and other Republicans were careful to speak of the obligation to them even while criticizing Biden.


Fort McCoy has a history of playing host to refugees, a past that is now coloring how some see the current effort.

In 1980, thousands of Cuban refugees were transported to Fort McCoy during the Mariel boatlift. Wisconsinites living near Fort McCoy thought they were housing people fleeing Fidel Castro’s regime, but Castro later said he had taken the opportunity to empty Cuba’s jails and mental institutions.

Those statements contributed to a narrative that the refugees who arrived at Fort McCoy were not dissidents but people who had come from mental institutions or jails.

The turmoil wasn’t solely propaganda. Inside the compound, guards had to contend with fights and riots. Outside, memories differ on how much the community suffered.

Crime rose in the La Crosse area — most strikingly, when a refugee named Lene Cespedes-Torres was convicted of murdering his sponsor, Berniece Taylor, in her Tomah home on Sept. 13, 1980.


Still, while it remains unclear how much the refugees will mingle with people in the surrounding towns, even the optimists see a potential for cultural conflicts and misunderstandings.

Some 99.7 percent of the population of Afghanistan is Muslim, but fewer than 1 percent of Wisconsinites are. And for many, the enduring image of the country is of a nation that supported Osama bin Laden as he planned the 9/11 attacks two decades ago — even if that support was provided by the Taliban regime, not ordinary Afghans.

Monroe County Historian Jarrod Roll said that, although most of the residents he’s spoken to seem welcoming, in previous mass migrations to Wisconsin, cultural differences have sparked distrust or animus in a community that is mostly White and Christian.

“I think it can become an underlying bitterness . . . or just feeling like, ‘If I had a choice, I would not want you in my life,’ ” he said.