Friday’s first public view of a U.S. military base was provided by the Biden administration. This came amid questions about the government’s care for refugees and their vetting.
“Every Afghan who is here with us has endured a harrowing journey and they are now faced with the very real challenges of acclimating with life in the United States,” Liz Gracon, a senior State Department official, stated to reporters.
The three-hour tour of Fort Bliss Army Base in El Paso, Texas was the first time that the media had been allowed broad access to any one of eight U.S. military installations that house Afghans.
However, even with this, reporters with The Associated Press were not permitted to speak with evacuees or spend more time in the areas they were gathered. Military officials cited “privacy concerns.”
Nearly 10,000 Afghan refugees are currently staying at the base, where they will undergo security and medical checks before being resettled in America. Officials from the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of State described the operation as “historical” and “unprecedented in order to facilitate the relocation of large numbers of refugees in less that a month.
Afghan children played with basketballs and soccer balls outside large white tents on Friday. A dirt driveway was filled with families carrying plastic containers and Coca-Cola cans underneath their heads as they walked. A young girl in dirty clothes cried on the roadside after her food was spilled. Soldiers tried to help her. The refugees had waited for around 15 minutes to get into the containers. Inside were traditional Afghan meals such as basmati rice and hearty stew.
Two weeks were spent by the U.S. government building what it called a village to accommodate the Afghans at the base. The sprawling area is home to scores of air-conditioned tents that were used as dormitories or dining halls. It was built on dirt lots and resembles the areas where they fled. In 2016, the base was used as a refuge for migrant children.
The program “Operation Allies Welcome” will allow some 50,000 Afghans to enter the United States. This includes translators and drivers who were part of the U.S. military’s 20-year war effort and those who feared reprisals from the Taliban following their quick takeover of power last month.
Nearly 130,000 were airlifted out of Afghanistan in one of the largest mass evacuations in U.S. history. Many of those people are still in transit, undergoing security vetting and screening in other countries, including Germany, Spain, Kuwait and Qatar.
Members of Congress have questioned whether the screening is thorough enough. Many of the Afghans who worked for the U.S. government have undergone years of vetting already before they were hired, and then again to apply for a special immigrant visa for U.S. allies.
After they are released from the base, they will be aided by resettlement agencies in charge of placing the refugees. The agencies give priority to places where the refugees either have family already in the United States or there are Afghan immigrant communities with the resources to help them start a new life in a foreign land. Those with American citizenship or green cards are able to leave once arriving at the base, according to a State Department representative.
Other evacuees, whose release is contingent on them complying with health protocols required by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, may choose to leave before the resettlement period ends. This could be used against them.
So far, no one at Fort Bliss has been released for resettlement.
According to the Pentagon, all evacuees will be tested for COVID-19 at Dulles International Airport in Washington.
Biden’s administration also uses the base to host thousands of Central American immigrant children who have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border alone, often without their parents. They are kept there until they can be reunited either with their relatives in the United States, or with a sponsor (usually a family friend) or sent to licensed facilities.
Associated Press writer Julie Watson contributed to this report from San Diego.
Farnoush Amiri works as a corps member for Report for America Statehouse News Initiative/Associated Press. Report for America, a non-profit national service program, places journalists in local newsrooms so they can report on undercovered topics.