FORT BLISS, Texas (AP) – The Biden government gave its first public glimpse Friday into a U.S. military base screening Afghans flown out of Afghanistan amid questions about how the government is looking after and screening the refugees.
“Every Afghan who is here with us has had a harrowing journey and is now faced with the very real challenges of getting used to life in the United States,” Liz Gracon, a senior State Department official, told reporters.
The three-hour tour of the Fort Bliss military base in El Paso, Texas marked the first time the media had wide access to any of the eight U.S. military facilities that house Afghans.
Even so, reporters, including those from The Associated Press, were not allowed to speak to evacuees or spend more than a few minutes in the areas where they congregated, with military officials citing “privacy concerns”.
Nearly 10,000 Afghan evacuees are 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 officials as a “historic” and “unprecedented” effort to facilitate the relocation of large numbers of refugees in less than a month.
On Friday, Afghan children played with soccer balls and basketballs in front of large white tents. Families walked down a dirt driveway with piles of plastic containers under their chins and Coca-Cola cans under their arms. A young girl, still wearing dirty clothes, cried in the middle of the street when her food was spilled and soldiers tried to help her. In the containers, for which refugees queued for around 15 minutes in the blazing sun, were traditional Afghan dishes made from basmati rice and hearty stew.
The US government spent two weeks building what was called a village to house the Afghans on the base. It’s a vast area with myriad air-conditioned tents serving as dormitories and dining rooms on scruffy dirt lots, a landscape that in some ways resembled parts of the homeland from which they had fled. The base was previously used in 2016 to accommodate migrant children.
The “Operation Allies Welcome” program aims to welcome around 50,000 Afghans into the US, including translators, drivers and others who helped the US military during the 20 Years’ War and who feared reprisals from the Taliban after a short period of time Power taken over.
Almost 130,000 were flown out of Afghanistan in one of the largest mass evacuations in US history. Many of these people are still in transit and are undergoing security clearance and control in other countries including Germany, Spain, Kuwait and Qatar.
Congressmen have questioned whether the screening is thorough enough. Many of the Afghans who worked for the US government underwent years of screening before they were hired and then reapplied for special immigrant visas for US allies.
After they are released from the base, they are supported by resettlement agencies that are responsible for accommodating the refugees. The agencies prefer locations where the refugees either already have families in the US or there are Afghan immigrant communities helping them start a new life in a foreign country. Those with American citizenship or green cards can leave after arriving at the base, according to a State Department official.
If other evacuees – whose release is contingent on completing health protocols prescribed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – choose to leave before the full relocation deadline, it can be used against them.
So far, no one has been released for resettlement at Fort Bliss.
The Pentagon has said that all evacuees will be tested for COVID-19 upon arrival at Dulles International Airport outside of Washington.
The Biden government is also using the base to house thousands of immigrant children, mostly from Central America, who have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border alone in record numbers, without adults. The children are housed there until they can be reunited with relatives already living in the United States or a sponsor, usually a friend of the family, or sent to a licensed facility.
The Associated Press Writer Julie Watson contributed to this report from San Diego.
Farnoush Amiri is a corps member of the Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a not-for-profit national utility that places journalists on local newsrooms to cover undercover issues.
Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed in any way without permission.