A huddle of white tents backdropped by the forbidding Organ Mountains and surrounded by bleak, red desert: this is the remote Fort Bliss subcamp where Afghan refugees are being housed while awaiting new homes in the US.
The Texas army base is caring for the Afghan newcomers in a purpose-built housing area at the Dona Ana Range Complex just across the border in New Mexico.
The heavily guarded facility has been closed to the outside world since the first of the 2,160 Afghans currently at the camp arrived – with a heavy security presence made up of 1,000 soldiers and military cops patrolling the roads surrounding it.
When a DailyMail.com team attempted to visit, military police stopped us getting within a mile of the property and told us not to take photos from a distance.
While politicians from Texas and New Mexico have been allowed into the facility, their visits took place with a military escort – both Republican Senator Ted Cruz and Democrat Rep. Veronica Escobar were allowed in last week.
Fort Bliss – one of seven military bases housing Afghan evacuees – is caring for refugees at a purpose-built housing area at the Dona Ana Range Complex (pictured) in New Mexico
The Department of Defense is providing transportation and temporary housing in support of Operation Allies Refuge. Pictured: Cots are lined up at the facility in preparation for the arrival of refugees
An official collecting donations for the camp told DailyMail.com most of the refugees arrived with nothing more than a change of clothes and would not be able to afford the $56 cost of an Uber ride to downtown El Paso as Cruz claimed
The heavily guarded facility has been closed to the outside world since the first of the 2,160 Afghans currently at the camp arrived. DailyMail.com has learned none of the refugees have left and they are expected to stay there until their applications are processed
A spokesman for Fort Bliss told DailyMail.com that the Pentagon and the State Department are making decisions on visitors on a case-by-case basis – so far, no media organizations have been allowed in.
The heavily guarded facility was thrust into the spotlight this week following Cruz’s visit. He claimed afterwards that refugees were getting Uber rides into downtown El Paso, 30 miles away.
‘The leadership at Fort Bliss told me about one of the refugees who called an Uber and took an Uber to downtown El Paso and they are not detaining anyone there so if 10,000 refugees arrive there, every one of those 10,000 can choose to leave tomorrow,’ he said after his visit.
Cruz also said he thinks Afghan refugees should be resettled in third countries rather than within the US.
But DailyMail.com can reveal that none of the Afghans at Dona Ana have left the camp and that most are expected to stay until their visa process has been completed and permanent housing has been found.
Asked whether an Uber could make it to Dona Ana, a soldier at the complex told DailyMail.com: ‘No Afghans are getting Ubers. The Ubers would be stopped before they could get in there anyway.
President Biden announced on Sunday evening that the Department of Homeland Security would be the lead agency coordinating ongoing efforts across the federal government to resettle the Afghan refugees (pictured arriving in Virginia on Tuesday)
The camp was thrust into the spotlight this week after Ted Cruz claimed refugees were not being properly vetted. Pictured: A soldier at the dining facility on the Dona Ana Range Complex in New Mexico, on August 19
When a DailyMail.com team attempted to visit the camp, military police stopped us getting within a mile of the property and told us not to take photos from a distance
The complex is surrounded with a heavy security presence made up of 1,000 soldiers and military cops and officials say refugees are expected to stay there until their visa process has been completed and permanent housing has been found
‘The Afghan refugees can leave once their paperwork has been processed. They have to wait for that before they go.
‘The base is also being used for evacuated American citizens – American citizens with all their documents can leave any time they want.’
George Elsaesser is the Executive Director of the Armed Forces YMCA El Paso which is handling donations for the Afghan families at Dona Ana.
He said most of the refugees had arrived with nothing more than a change of clothes after having their possessions taken by the Taliban and would not be able to afford the $56 cost of an Uber ride to downtown El Paso.
He told DailyMail.com: ‘I personally don’t appreciate that kind of rhetoric. I did not go on the tour of the facility or fly over it with Ted Cruz, I did not talk to Ted Cruz.
‘On a personal level, it’s a little annoying [to hear]. But he’s a politician and politicians do what politicians do.’
Elsaesser added: ‘The families would go to the airport with their bags and everything trying to get on the plane. The Taliban would end up stopping them.
Ted Cruz claimed Afghan refugees can call an Uber to leave their holding location in the U.S. – above the Republican senator from Texas takes an aerial tour of Fort Bliss
‘Every time they saw someone with a backpack or a bag, they would end up stopping them because they knew they were trying to travel.
‘A lot of these families are leaving with nothing because if they have a bag, they get stopped so they have whatever they could fit in their pockets. That’s what they have. They’re showing up with their babies and the clothes on their backs.
‘Fort Bliss is providing housing, a place to lay their head down and sleep, a place to eat, a place to take care of their family while they decide what we’re going to do with these people.’
Cruz’s remarks were instantly seized upon by critics of the Biden Administration’s vetting process.
‘Unfortunately, the Biden administration has completely botched the process, as well as [having] a proven track record of letting unvetted criminals cross our borders with impunity,’ Republican Rep. Yvette Herrell told DailyMail.com on Monday.
George Elsaesser, the executive director of the Armed Forces YMCA El Paso, said most refugees are families in need of resources
‘As a member of the Oversight Committee and the Representative for the Second District, I am fighting for transparency and the rights of American citizens to protect their communities.’
But according to Elsaesser, most of the Afghans housed at Dona Ana are families with young children – among them newborn babies – and says the Armed Forces YMCA is desperate for donations of diapers and feminine hygiene products, as well as toys and games for the children.
He said: ‘The kids need board games and soccer balls. The families need a change of clothes. They need soap. They need shampoo. They need diapers for the babies, hairbrushes, nail clippers, new shoes.
‘We started asking for sandals but it turns out a lot of the men would prefer lace-up shoes so we’re looking for laceable shoes that are new or in good condition.
‘Feminine hygiene items – that’s a big request right now. Some newborn babies have just arrived so we need items for them as well.’
The Armed Services YMCA is desperate for donations of diapers and feminine hygiene products, as well as toys and games for the children
Elsaesser said most of the refugees had arrived with nothing more than a change of clothes after having their possessions taken by the Taliban
So far, the Armed Services YMCA has received $16,000 in donations from SkyWest Airlines as well as several bags of donated clothes for the refugees
The Pentagon has said it is planning for 10,000 refugees to be housed at Dona Ana in the coming weeks while decisions are made about permanent housing.
For Elsaesser and his team, making sure the refugees have all they need has become a vast operation that includes a team of 75 volunteers to sort the 20,000 donations they have received so far.
He told DailyMail.com that airline SkyWest and its staff donated $16,000 to purchase provisions for the refugees, while his storeroom was overflowing with jumbo packs of sanitary towels and plastic bags of clothes waiting to be trucked up to the camp.
Elsaesser said: ‘The response has been incredible. There’s no shortage of people who are reaching out and sending us what those people need.
‘The response from Fort Bliss, the El Paso community and from outside the Borderland has been incredible.’
He added: ‘Right now, we’re planning on running this indefinitely – I’m not sure how long it will go on.
‘But we’re prepared to run this as long as necessary, for as long as Fort Bliss wants us to conduct these operations.’