There was bipartisan support in Texas this weekend for housing Afghan evacuees at the million-acre Fort Bliss military base, in El Paso near the Mexico border.
But one immigration rights expert warned both that those escaping the Taliban might need to stay at the facility as long as a year, while they are processed for resettlement, and that the base was “not safe” because of concerns about conditions for migrant children held there after crossing the southern border.
The Biden administration is being sued over its handling of the children at the base.
Amid chaotic scenes at the airport in Kabul, fears were growing over the ability of the US to bring out Afghan nationals who have assisted military, diplomatic and other efforts for the last 20 years. The capital fell to the Taliban last Sunday, after the Afghan government and military crumpled.
In remarks at the White House on Friday, Joe Biden tried to reassure Afghan allies, although the safe passage of non-Americans is far from certain.
“We’re going to do everything, everything that we can to provide safe evacuation for our Afghan allies, partners and Afghans who might be targeted because of their association with the United States,” the president said.
On Saturday, a Pentagon official told reporters 22,000 people had been relocated to Fort Bliss.
In El Paso, the Democratic congresswoman Veronica Escobar tweeted her approval for housing refugees at the local base.
“I support the [Department of Defense’s] decision to consider Fort Bliss and other US military installation sites to resettle vulnerable refugees,” she posted. “America must act swiftly to get our partners out of harm’s way and El Paso stands ready to welcome them and their families.”
John Cornyn, one of two Texas Republicans in the US Senate, said officials at Fort Bliss “believe they have more than enough space to accommodate the Afghan refugees”.
But Fort Bliss is also home to a tented camp for unaccompanied migrant children, arrivals from Mexico without parents or legal guardians.
The federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has stated that it has space for up to 5,000 such unaccompanied children at Fort Bliss and is now housing 2,551 at what the Biden administration called an emergency intake site (EIS), where operations have been complicated by the coronavirus pandemic.
A lawsuit was filed in California earlier this month by lawyers representing migrant children, accusing the government of exposing children at Fort Bliss to “shockingly deplorable conditions”, CBS first reported.
“Minimal standards and inadequate oversight at EISs has exposed thousands of children to unacceptable conditions that threaten their safety and wellbeing,” said the lawsuit from the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law and the National Center for Youth Law.
Vice-president Kamala Harris did not include the army base on her visit to El Paso in June, even as multiple reports suggested poor conditions, long detention times and even abuse at the tent camp, triggering an HHS watchdog investigation.
Bilal Askaryar, communications coordinator for Afghan immigration rights group Welcome With Dignity, said such reports prompted concern for evacuees from Kabul.
“We should not be taking refugees from evacuation to, essentially, detention,” Askaryar said.
Fort Bliss is not expected to provide permanent or semi-permanent housing for Afghanis but rather a processing center before families are resettled across the US. But shortages of legal representation to help child migrants raise further questions.
“Afghan refugees could be at Fort Bliss or other similar facilities for up to a year as their cases are processed,” said Askaryar. “The recent track record suggests Fort Bliss isn’t a safe location for even a few days.”
Fort Bliss officials directed questions to the Pentagon, which has declined to comment beyond press briefings earlier in the week.
The HHS administration for children and families, which runs the EIS at Fort Bliss, did not respond when asked if it would also be running the site for Afghan refugees.
As of Thursday, the El Paso county judge and local immigration leaders had not been briefed on if refugees might be resettled into the greater El Paso community. Refugee service groups were expected to help resettle families, with the help of non-governmental organizations to various places across the country.
Refugee Services of Texas said it expected that about 300 Afghan refugees in total would be resettled in larger cities in the state. The El Paso county judge, Ricardo Samaniego, said he requested a meeting with the commander at Fort Bliss, Maj Gen Sean Bernabe, but that had not been scheduled as of Friday.
Fort Bliss, a US army base for more than 150 years, straddles Texas and New Mexico. It is now home to the 1st Armored Division and more than 160,000 people including members of the military and their families.