EL PASO, Texas — The Biden administration on Friday provided the first public look inside a U.S. military base where Afghans airlifted out of Afghanistan are being screened, amid questions about how the government is caring for the refugees and vetting them.
The three-hour tour at Fort Bliss Army base in El Paso, Texas, was the first time the media has been granted broad access to one of the eight U.S. military installations housing Afghans.
Nearly 10,000 Afghan evacuees are staying at the base while they undergo medical and security checks before being resettled in the United States.
On Friday, Afghan children with soccer balls and basketballs played outside large white tents. One young girl was still wearing dirty clothing.
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 hundreds of air-conditioned tents used as dormitories and dining halls on scrubby dirt lots, 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.
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.
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 the Dulles International Airport in 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.
Associated Press writer Julie Watson contributed to this report from San Diego.