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Operation Provide Refuge / Open Arms

US Vice President Al Gore announced plans to relocate up to 20,000 Kosovar refugees to the United States on 21 April 1999. He said those with family ties in America and those in vulnerable circumstances, such as single mothers or people with medical conditions, would be given priority. This effort was known as Operation Open Arms. Open Arms was a $100-million effort to airlift as many as 20,000 Kosovo refugees to safety in the United States until they could return to their homes. Though supported by the Department of Defense, the effort was headed by the Department of Health and Human Services. The Immigration and Naturalization Service, State Department, American Red Cross, New Jersey National Guard, and nongovernment resettlement agencies also supported the effort.

The refugees arrived at the Fort Dix army base in New Jersey, via nearby McGuire Air Force Base, where they would stay for about 3 weeks to complete legal processing before being placed with host families around the country. When each refugee family finished initial processing, soldiers and Immigration and Naturalization Service interpreters escorted them to assigned dormitories At Fort Dix, American Red Cross relief workers provided care and comfort for the refugees by registering families as they arrived and providing translation services, mental health support, beverages, snacks, childcare, and recreational activities. This effort was either subsequently renamed or parts of the effort were otherwise conducted under the name Operation Provide Refuge. Those with relatives in the United States were allowed to use commercial flights to meet family members at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport. All of the Kosovars entered the United States with the legal status of "refugees." As such, they could work in the United States and could also decide to stay. They could apply for permanent residency after one year and for citizenship after 5. US officials, however, said they expected most of the refugees would want to return to Kosovo, and the US government was committed to help them return once it was safe to do so. Only blood relatives could sponsor refugees in the United States.

Initially it was proposed that the US would house 20,000 Kosovar refugees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba in a mission various referred to as Operation Shining Hope or Sustain Hope (which subsequently came to refer to US contributions to NATO humanitarian efforts in Albania). However, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and some US refugee organizations balked at this proposal, likening the base to a detention camp. The United States subsequently shelved the whole idea, but denied it had to do with the conditions at Guantanamo, but instead because the refugee situation in the Balkans had begun to stabilize and the refugees did not want to be sent 4,500 miles from home, safe haven or no.

On 5 May 1999, the first 450 Kosovar refugees arrived at McGuire Air Force Base as part of Operation Provide Refuge. During Operation Provide Refuge, the US Army Reserve managed refugee operations and care for more than 4,000 Kosovar refugees. Fort Dix, a USAR Power Projection Platform, processed more than a quarter of the 13,989 Kosovar refugees finally admitted to the United States as part of Operation Provide Refuge / Open Arms. The flow of refugees to Fort Dix stopped at the end of May 1999 after the last of 9 flights arrived. US officials said refugees bound for the United States would instead complete processing overseas and then go directly to relatives or sponsors. By the end of May 1999, the plan was that once the refugees still at Fort Dix had left, the center would be mothballed, but kept available for future contingencies.



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