The Biden administration allowed a carefully curated view into the military base housing recent Afghani evacuees, echoing previous limitations that barred reporters from observing conditions at detention centers for illegal immigrants, as well as the conditions of Jan. 6 political dissidents.
However, it declined to let reporters interview detainees about the conditions or other events that contributed to their evacuation after President Joe Biden’s botched withdrawal.
Liz Gracon, a senior State Department official, told reporters, “Every Afghan who is here with us has endured a harrowing journey and they are now faced with the very real challenges of acclimating to life in the United States.”
Many worries remained, though, regarding how the government is caring for and verifying the refugees.
The three-hour tour at Fort Bliss Army facility in El Paso, Texas, was the first time the media had full access to one of the eight US military bases hosting Afghans.
Despite this, military commanders prohibited media, including those from The Associated Press, from speaking with evacuees or spending more than a few minutes in places where they were gathering, claiming “privacy concerns.”
Nearly 10,000 Afghan evacuees are living at the site while undergoing medical and security screenings before being resettled in the US.
Officials from the Departments of Homeland Security and State described the operation as a “historic” and “unprecedented” endeavor to enable the relocation of a large number of refugees in less than a month.
Outside enormous white tents on Friday, Afghan children with soccer balls and basketballs played.
Families walked down a dirt driveway with stacks of plastic food containers piled under their chins and Coca-Cola cans under their arms.
One young girl, still wearing dirty clothing, cried in the middle of the road after her food spilled and soldiers attempted to help her.
Inside the containers, which refugees had spent around 15 minutes in line for in the blistering sun, were traditional Afghan meals of basmati rice and hearty stew.
The U.S. government spent two weeks building what it calls a village to house the Afghans on the base.
It is a sprawling area with scores of air-conditioned tents used as dormitories and dining halls on scrubby dirt lots, 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 helped the U.S. military during the 20-year war and who feared reprisals by the Taliban after they quickly seized 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.
A measles outbreak at two of the bases last week was poised to delay the screening operation.
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.
If other evacuees—whose release is dependent on completing health protocols mandated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—choose to leave prior to the full resettlement period, that may be used against them.
So far, no one at Fort Bliss has been released for resettlement.
The Pentagon has said all evacuees are tested for COVID-19 upon arriving at Dulles International Airport outside Washington.
The Biden administration is also using the base to house thousands of immigrant children, mostly from Central America, who have been crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in record numbers on their own, without adults. The 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 a licensed facility.