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'Incredibly Proud': Rep. Veronica Escobar Visits Afghan Evacuee Shelter At Fort Bliss

Rep. Escobar begins her tour of the Afghan evacuee shelter at Fort Bliss.
Office of Congresswoman Veronica Escobar
Rep. Escobar begins her tour of the Afghan evacuee shelter at Fort Bliss.

The Democratic Congresswoman said she toured the refugee shelter on Wednesday at Fort Bliss, which is ramping up to take 10,000 refugees.

About 1,200 Afghan refugees landed at Fort Bliss — headquartered in El Paso — on Wednesday. It’s one of four evacuee sites at military installations across the country.

Many refugees hope to build new lives in the U.S. after escaping the chaos in Kabul. TPR’s Carson Frame spoke with Democratic Congresswoman Veronica Escobar — who visited the evacuee shelter this week — about what life looks like for them now.

Carson Frame: Set the scene for me a bit here. Which part of Fort Bliss is handling these refugees, and what does the setup look like? It sounds like a huge operation. 

Veronica Escobar: Absolutely, it really is a remarkably large and complex operation. And I walked away feeling impressed, helpful, and incredibly proud. So the operations and the housing and the NGOs are all situated in the same general area. In many ways, it’s like a small city. It is in a desert area of Fort Bliss, an incredibly large military installation that’s the size of multiple small northeastern states — that's how big it is. It's the portion of Fort Bliss that’s in New Mexico where the families and the NGOs and the troops are situated. There are tents for the families with cots. There is a medical clinic. There is a separate area where many of the intergovernmental agencies are housed, as well as the American Red Cross and the International Rescue Commission. There are hundreds of troops, I think, actually 1,000 troops. And I had the opportunity not just to speak with the troops — and with the Fort Bliss leadership and the Northern Command leadership — but also with Afghan families as well.

CF:  Did you get the sense that servicemembers are the primary manpower behind the processing effort, as opposed to the State Department or other federal entities?

VE: The State Department, the International Rescue Commission and other government agencies like Customs and Border Protection are all working collaboratively to process and care for the families and individuals. There are contractors on the base that are literally building more tents… As I was there, they were constructing more facilities to house up to 10,000 “guests.” And the beauty of that... that is not my term. That is the term coined by our troops, the contractors, the International Rescue Commission, the American Red Cross and others. But yes, it's a collaboration of folks who are caring for and processing our guests.

CF:  Can you speak to some of the interactions that you saw between refugees and service members in particular? I was curious about this because many of these service members —  I would guess —  have deployed to Afghanistan and might feel a special connection to these new arrivals.

VE: That's a great question. You know, the service members that I was able to have at least some minimal conversations with — many of them had not been deployed. They're really young. They're from all over the country: 19 years old, 20 years old. Some of them have been deployed. But one of them, as an example, one of our service members who I had the privilege of speaking to had never been deployed. But he had been recognized by one of the Afghan families as being especially kind. The Afghan family mentioned to Fort Bliss leadership that this one particular service member had really helped them tremendously. So I had the opportunity to meet him and thank him personally — 19-year-old young man! He said that it was his honor and his privilege to be able to help these Afghan families, these guests during this time. I told him that what he is doing is really incredible in helping provide the initial interaction between our guests and Americans, here on American soil — that I was grateful to him for the way that he was showing such care to our guests. And I told him that he is participating in a very important moment in American history.

CF: Was he more on the medical processing side? Was he helping with administrative paperwork? Was he part of the frontline reception?

VE: Well, you described it perfectly. He was part of the frontline reception. Once the guests have been transported to that part of Fort Bliss, they then are led into facilities where they're given some primary health checks. Those health checks happen immediately upon landing at the airfield. But then they happen again when they arrive at what I call “the small city.” And then there are other troops who are clearing land. I met one who spent a lot of time on a bulldozer clearing off land and space so the contractors could construct more facilities. There are soldiers there who — in their spare time — as you can imagine, they have very little spare time — they're working really long days — 12-hour days. Sometimes longer. Soldiers who have constructed makeshift soccer goals, taking spare lumber and netting to construct these goals so that the kids can play soccer and enjoy themselves and relax and have fun. There is so much care that our troops are exhibiting toward not just these children but to the families. To everyone across the board. Our military leadership has told me that morale there on the base among the troops is extremely high. And I will tell you, I felt it.

CF: I know this is a little bit of a moving target, but how many refugees have made it to Fort Bliss so far? What kind of capacity is the base trying to build?

VE: Yesterday when I was there yesterday in the afternoon, we got there... my district director and I arrived at the airfield within an hour after one of the flights had arrived. And at that point, there were about 1,200 guests on Fort Bliss. They were awaiting another airplane. Everyone is expecting that this activity will only ramp up — that we'll see more than a couple of flights a day. Ultimately, there will be about 10,000 guests at Fort Bliss.

CF: Wow. I mean, do you have any concerns about that? I mean  it's a huge operation — all hands on deck. Do you feel like the planning has been adequate so that the base can handle this with the supports that it has?

VE: I had a very specific conversation with the commanding general about readiness. I serve on the House Armed Services Committee, and we are always concerned about anything that limits the ability for our military to be ready. Anything that is outside the norm will always have somewhat of an impact. But I was not led to believe in any way, shape, or form that this would seriously impact our readiness at all. In fact, in many ways, what was described to me is that these service members have the ability — as a result of this work — to get training in setting up large scale operations, providing humanitarian support. Really, in many respects, this is preparation for what will happen abroad and in theater. So while it absolutely makes Fort Bliss shift some of their operations around, it is not detrimental overall to their readiness. And it helps provide some pretty unique and special training to the troops.

CF: Let's talk a little bit about the refugees' visa status. Have most of them had special immigrant visas approved? Or are some still in the pipeline, waiting for the approval process to complete?

VE: It really is a mix of population. And so yesterday, as an example, I spoke to an interpreter from Afghanistan who is a legal permanent resident of the United States. But his wife does not have legal status. So she is here on humanitarian parole. They are all here on humanitarian parole. So that means they have up to one year to adjust their status and the humanitarian parole expires after two years. But you know, there were a number of guests on base who had their Special Immigrant Visa, some who had some level of immigration status. I was told a story about one of the guests who arrived who actually was an American citizen and either had dual citizenship — or I'm not quite sure, but definitely was an American citizen — and was able to essentially just walk off the base, call an Uber, and meet with family here in El Paso. And there is a mix. I know that our interagency folks are working to sort that out so that everyone gets the kind of processing that they require in order to, ultimately, be released. So some folks may need more help with their paperwork or more time for their visa. Some folks may be very ready and just need support and assistance in finding housing and making sure that they are relocated in a safe way. So it's at varying points.

CF: How long are the refugees staying at Fort Bliss, and where are they being sent afterward?

VE: So I asked that very question: “How long should we anticipate that our guests will be here? And what should we expect?” The State (Department) folks told me that it’s really too soon to tell for some. There are probably about 17 who have already been able to leave. So that's a good sign. You know, who have their paperwork in order, or who have secured housing on their own or have relatives. And that may be the case for many. Because apparently, there's a significant number of guests who have family in the United States. So that may be just a matter of — if their paperwork is ready — and if they have travel documents that are ready — they can meet their family or their family members can come pick them up. Others, it will take longer, and they'll have to be relocated. My understanding is that many of them have an interest in being relocated to communities where there is already a significant Afghan population, which is totally understandable. I believe and I hope there are a number of American communities who are going to welcome our friends, our guests, with open arms. It is my hope that leaders across the country — mayors, governors, et cetera — will raise their hands up and say, “We stand ready to welcome you and help you create a life here.”

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Carson Frame was Texas Public Radio's military and veterans' issues reporter from July 2017 until March 2024.