Spc. Kiyana Santamaria, left, an Army motor transport operator, and Spc. Jessica Koroma, a religious affairs specialist, interact with Afghan children at Fort Bliss’s Doña Ana Complex on Sept. 11. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Christina Westover, 24th Theater Public Affairs Support Element)

Viewed from above, the two sites housing foreign nationals on Fort Bliss look similar. They’re both a maze of white tents plopped onto a dusty desert terrain, with tiny specks of humans bustling in between.

That was the view from a military Blackhawk helicopter that shuttled a group of journalists to the Doña Ana Range Complex last week, where nearly 10,000 Afghans are being temporarily housed 35 miles north of El Paso. En route, the helicopter passed over the separate area where unaccompanied migrant children are held on Fort Bliss, just north of the 1st Armored Division Headquarters.

But while members of the media were able to explore the site housing Afghan nationals during a comprehensive four-hour tour and press conference with officials from the Department of State, Department of Homeland Security and the Army, the same cannot be said for the tent city for detained migrant children that is operated by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement.

“ORR is not hosting media-specific tours of unaccompanied children (UC) facilities at this time,” an HHS spokesperson said in an email to El Paso Matters on Sept. 13. It was the third request El Paso Matters has made to visit the facility.

Journalists flew over a Fort Bliss facility for unaccompanied migrant children on their way to see an encampment for Afghan refugees on the post. (René Kladzyk/El Paso Matters)

Members of the press have repeatedly been denied access to emergency intake sites for migrant children since they opened in March 2021. It’s made efforts to report on the facilities largely reliant on anonymous interviews with nerve-wracked employees, whistleblower reports and videos smuggled out by staff.

The Trump-era facility for migrant children in Tornillo had a greater level of transparency: members of the media were allowed to tour it 11 days after it opened in June 2018.

The most recent whistleblower account about the Fort Bliss EIS, published Sept. 8, includes descriptions of children getting burns and blisters from skin-whitening lotion they were given in place of moisturizer, chronic loud noise, scalding baths and frequent threats of deportation by staff.

When asked about the whistleblower account, an HHS spokesperson said: “The care and well-being of children in our custody continues to be a top priority for HHS. We act quickly to address any concerns and have proactively closed sites that didn’t meet our standards.” The official did not respond to several specific questions about children at the site.

Despite uneven levels of transparency, what is known shows some key commonalities and notable differences between the two tent cities for foreign nationals at Fort Bliss.

El Paso Matters and other news outlets toured the Doña Ana Range Complex where Afghan evacuees are being housed on Sept. 10. (Photo by David Poe courtesy Fort Bliss Public Affairs Office)

Housing conditions 

Structurally, both sites largely consist of soft-sided white tents organized in a rectilinear grid pattern. The Afghans’ camp also includes some of the original 1960s-era solid structures being used for housing. Within the tents used for sleeping, cots are placed snugly side by side with each tent sleeping 100 “guests.” At the site for migrant children it is unknown how many sleep per tent, though whistleblower accounts have described “overcrowded” conditions that have contributed to several outbreaks of COVID-19. 

One clear difference between the structures at the two sites is the scale: the Doña Ana Range Complex site for Afghan nationals has undergone a dramatic expansion and currently houses nearly 10,000 Afghans. The emergency intake site for unaccompanied migrant children meanwhile has a potential capacity of 5,000 and holds 1,685 children between age 13 and 17 as of Sept. 10, according to a fact sheet provided by HHS. In May, the Biden administration considered expanding the site to hold up to 10,000 children, though that did not come to pass. 

Nationwide, there are 13,548 migrant children in ORR housing, according to the fact sheet.

Sgt. Margret Poit with 40th Brigade Engineer Battalion, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, interacts with Afghan children at Fort Bliss’s Doña Ana Complex in New Mexico on Sept. 11. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Michael West, 1st Armored Division, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team)

When U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, was asked to describe the housing conditions for Afghans at Fort Bliss during a press conference on Aug. 25, she said they were “not dissimilar to what we’ve seen at the emergency intake facility (for unaccompanied migrant children).”

The extent of weather-proofing in the sleeping quarters at the facilities may be a key difference between the two sites. At the site for Afghans, a sealant had been carefully applied to the bottom of the tents prior to the Sept. 10 tour, eliminating open space between the bottom of the tents and the flooring. An Army representative guiding the tour described the tents as “extremely weather resistant.”

As of early July, no such sealant had been applied to the bottom of tents at the site for unaccompanied migrant children. Historic rains this summer led to water leaking in the tents for the children, and a whistleblower account from early summer described how the openings at the bottoms of the facilities enabled dust and dirt to blow inside the tents, contributing to poor hygiene and “filthy” conditions.

HHS has not responded to questions about whether the tents for unaccompanied minors have been sealed since those reports were published.

The people at Fort Bliss and their immigration status

Unlike the unaccompanied migrant children at Fort Bliss, the Afghan nationals are not being detained. They are free to leave the facility at any time, but because they can access specific resettlement benefits if they remain on-site as their cases are processed, few decide to leave.

A handout provided during the Sept. 10 press tour stated that the Afghanistan Placement Assistance Program will provide initial relocation support to Afghans who are granted parole. An Army representative on the tour said that includes assistance with housing, a living stipend and other hands-on assistance.

Many of the Afghans at Fort Bliss are Special Immigrant Visa applicants, which is an immigration status available to those who worked on behalf of the United States government in Afghanistan for at least two years. Family members and dependents can accompany the principal applicant for an SIV visa. Others are in the process of seeking parole.

Yaha Aguilera with Save the Children plays with Afghan children at Fort Bliss’s Doña Ana Complex on Sept. 9. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Michael West, 1st Armored Division, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team)

Fort Bliss officials did not give an estimated time for how long Afghans will stay on base while their cases are being processed. There is a significant backlog in the SIV application program, and as of May 2021 it took an average of 996 days to process SIV applications, according to CBS News

For unaccompanied migrant children, the average length of stay at the site was 18 days as of Sept. 8, according to an email from an HHS spokesperson.

“We have increased case management services to unite children safely and expeditiously with family, while we continue to improve and streamline this process,” the spokesperson said.

Whether the Biden administration has applied the lessons learned from the migrant childrens’ facilities is unknown, but an El Paso immigration lawyer said they should be applied to the Afghan camps.

“The administration’s plan to receive and house Afghans at Fort Bliss as part of these efforts must take into account recent disturbing conditions that unaccompanied minors faced at Fort Bliss,” Shaw Drake, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said in an email to El Paso Matters. 

Cover photo: Spc. Kiyana Santamaria, left, an Army motor transport operator, and Spc. Jessica Koroma, a religious affairs specialist, interact with Afghan children at Fort Bliss’s Doña Ana Complex on Sept. 11. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Christina Westover, 24th Theater Public Affairs Support Element)

René Kladzyk is a freelance reporter who also performs music as Ziemba. Follow her on Twitter @ziembavision.