FORT BLISS, TEXAS – The Biden administration on Friday provided the first public look inside a US military base where Afghans airlifted out of Afghanistan are being screened, amid questions about how the government is taking refugee care and control.
“All of the Afghans who are here with us have had a difficult journey and now face the very real challenges of adjusting to life in the United States,” Liz Gracon, a senior official in the US Department, told reporters. State.
The three-hour visit to the Fort Bliss military base in El Paso, Texas was the first time the media have been granted wide access to one of eight US military facilities housing Afghans.
But even so, journalists, including those from the Associated Press, were not allowed to speak with the evacuees or spend more than a few minutes in the areas where they were gathered, with military officials citing “problems of confidentiality ”.
Nearly 10,000 evacuated Afghans remain at the base while they undergo medical and security checks before being relocated to the United States. The operation has been described by Department of Homeland Security and State Department officials as a “historic” and “unprecedented” effort to facilitate the relocation of large numbers of refugees in less than a month.
Afghan children with soccer balls and basketballs played outside large white tents on Friday. Families walked down a dirt driveway with stacks of plastic food containers stacked under their chins and cans of Coca-Cola under their arms. A young girl, still dressed in dirty clothes, cried in the middle of the road after her food spilled and soldiers tried to help her. Inside the containers, for which the refugees had spent around 15 minutes in line under the scorching sun, were traditional Afghan meals of basmati rice and hearty stew.
The US government spent two weeks building what it calls a village to house the Afghans on the base. It’s a sprawling area with dozens of air-conditioned tents used as sleeping quarters and dining rooms on bushy dirt grounds, a landscape that in some ways resembled parts of the homeland they fled.
Under the program called “Operation Allies Welcome,” some 50,000 Afghans are expected to be admitted to the United States, including translators, drivers and others who assisted the United States military during the 20 Years War and who feared retaliation from the Taliban after quickly taking power last month.
Nearly 130,000 were airlifted out of Afghanistan in one of the largest mass evacuations in US history. Many of these people are still in transit, subject to security checks and checks in other countries, including Germany, Spain, Kuwait and Qatar.
Members of Congress questioned whether the screening was thorough enough.
Many Afghans who have worked for the US government have already gone through years of screening before being hired and then again applying for a special immigrant visa for US allies.
Once released from the base, they will be assisted by the resettlement agencies responsible for placing the refugees. Agencies prioritize places where refugees 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 country. Those with U.S. citizenship or green cards can leave once they get to the base, according to a State Department official.
If other evacuees – whose release depends on the completion of health protocols mandated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – choose to leave before the full relocation period is complete, that can be used against them.
So far, no one in Fort Bliss has been released for relocation.
The Pentagon has said all evacuees are tested for COVID-19 upon arrival at Dulles International Airport outside of Washington.
The Biden administration is also using the base to house thousands of immigrant children, mostly from Central America, who have crossed the US-Mexico border alone in record numbers, without adults. Children are housed there until they can be reunited with relatives already in the United States or with a sponsor, usually a family friend, or sent to an approved facility.