Update at 10:30 a.m. Monday, Aug. 23:
Pentagon officials briefly described plans for Afghan refugees to be housed at U.S. military bases, including Fort Bliss, during a press briefing Monday.
Pentagon press secretary John F. Kirby said four posts — Fort Bliss, Fort Lee, Fort McCoy, and Joint Base Mcguire-Dix-Lakehurst — are now available to house Special Immigrant Visa applicants and vulnerable Afghans.
“With the four bases, what our goal would be is to reach the ability, not necessarily the actual count, but the ability to build out to about 25,000 capacity,” Kirby said. “We aren’t there yet. … It’s going to take days and weeks I think for all four combined to get to that level, but that’s the goal.”
The current total number of Afghan refugees being housed at the four sites is approximately 1,200, according to Army Maj. Gen. William “Hank” Taylor, who also specified that all evacuees are tested for COVID-19 upon arriving to the Dulles International Airport.
Officials have not disclosed the current number of Afghan refugees at Fort Bliss. In a tweet thread on Monday, Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, said 650 Afghans had arrived as of Saturday.
Refugees from Afghanistan arrived at Fort Bliss’s Doña Ana Range Complex on Saturday, part of what the Department of Defense said could be the second-largest noncombatant evacuation operation in United States history.
A U.S. Army North spokesperson confirmed that “Special Immigrant Visa applicants, their families, and other individuals at risk” are being housed at both Fort Bliss and Fort Lee in Virginia.
“The 1st Armored Division team is providing the Afghans at Fort Bliss essential support, such as lodging, at Fort Bliss’ Doña Ana Range Complex in New Mexico, where they can finalize their immigration processing safely,” the spokesperson said.
The Special Immigrant Visa program was created as part of the Afghan Allies Protection Act of 2009, and entitles recipients to the same benefits and assistance as refugees. People who worked with the U.S. military in Afghanistan as translators, interpreters or other contractors are eligible to receive an SIV. But a backlog in the lengthy application process has meant that among the thousands desperate to leave Afghanistan amid the rapid takeover by the Taliban, many have incomplete or pending SIV applications.
The ongoing Afghanistan evacuation is the largest U.S. military removal of noncombatants since 20,000 American service members and their families were taken out of the Philippines following the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991.
The refugees will be housed temporarily at the Army bases until they can be placed in more permanent housing, U.S. officials have said.
The Army spokesperson did not say how many Afghan refugees will be housed at Fort Bliss, or provide an estimate for how long they would stay there. A Fort Bliss press release did say that they expect more refugees to arrive over the coming days.
“As you can imagine, there is much activity associated with the arrival,” he said. “For security reasons … we will not disclose specific details about those who arrived, or regarding future arrivals.”
Some local leaders and advocates have expressed concerns with how little information has been made available to them regarding plans for Afghan refugees in the area.
“I really wish that we had a contact at Fort Bliss that we could sit down and talk to and say ‘OK we’re anticipating X number of people, and generally speaking this is what we’re expecting in terms of their immigration status,’” said Melissa Lopez, executive director of Diocesan Migrant & Refugee Services during an interview with El Paso Matters on Thursday. “But we just literally don’t know much at all, in terms of what to expect coming to Fort Bliss,” she said.
Cover photo: The Doña Ana Range Complex at Fort Bliss is being used for temporary housing for Afghan citizens who have helped the United States. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Michael West/2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team)