About 1,200 Afghan refugees landed at Fort Bliss on Wednesday, many with hopes for a new life in the United States and fears for those left behind in a country in turmoil, according to U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-TX).
The congresswoman said she toured the refugee shelter on Wednesday at Fort Bliss, which will take in up to 10,000 evacuees. It’s one of four such sites at military installations around the country.
“I saw Afghan families,” Escobar said. “I saw infants. I saw a mom nursing her baby, who thanked me.
“Their parents are stressed out,” she said, “but these kids are resilient and joyful.”
One Afghan translator expressed gratitude. He and his wife had fled their country, Escobar said, leaving everyone and everything they knew.
“He’s worried about his family that’s left behind,” she said, including “family members that did not work for the (U.S.) government.”
Escobar said the conditions for the Afghan refugees are similar to those of the unaccompanied minors being housed in a separate section of Fort Bliss, where the Department of Health and Human Services has erected an “emergency intake” shelter.
She said the Afghan refugees are sleeping on cots, and officials are trying to create privacy for nursing mothers.
An area for prayer was created for those refugees practicing Islam. Soldiers made goal posts from spare lumber and netting for the kids to create a makeshift soccer field.
More than 650 refugees arrived at Fort Bliss on Monday, and one to two flights were expected per day. The refugee shelter is housed at the El Paso installation’s Doña Ana Range Complex in New Mexico.
Afghan refugees first arrived on Aug. 21 as part of Operation Allies Refuge.
In a press call on Tuesday, a White House spokesman said the refugees were being flown out of Kabul to third-party countries for “robust security processing,” including biographic and biometric screenings, before arriving in the U.S.
Everyone was being tested for COVID-19 upon arrival.
One case of COVID-19 was confirmed among the refugees on site Wednesday.
The spokesman said that refugees who are U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents or who hold a Special Immigrant Visa were expected to head directly to their destinations. Other refugees will land at one of the four military installations, including Fort Bliss.
The Department of State Special Immigrant Visa program is available for Afghans who worked as translators or interpreters for the U.S. military.
Applying for that visa status is an arduous process that can take two and a half years, according to a 2017 State Department and Homeland Security report. Applicants need an ID, proof of a U.S. military background check, a letter of recommendation and $435 to pay a filing fee.
“All of them have been vetted,” Escobar said. “They had to be vetted in order to work with the government, and they were vetted again before they got on the plane.”
Many incoming Afghan families have mixed status: Some refugees may have green cards while others are still awaiting a visa.
Escobar said the amount of time they’ll spend at the site would “vary from case to case.”
“But the International Refugee Coalition is on-site, and their role in ensuring that our guests get everything they need to get done in order for them to move on,” Escobar said, adding that many have family members in the U.S.
One family welcomed its newest member on U.S. soil: Overnight, an Afghan mother gave birth to a healthy baby.
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