Afghans Promised a Way Out Are Still Trapped by Red Tape

More than 70,000 Afghans who worked for the United States are still waiting for visas—unless the Taliban get to them first.

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Afghans seeking help with applying for special immigrant visas to the United States crowd into an internet cafe in Kabul on Aug. 8, 2021.
Afghans seeking help with applying for special immigrant visas to the United States crowd into an internet cafe in Kabul on Aug. 8, 2021.
Afghans seeking help with applying for special immigrant visas to the United States crowd into an internet cafe in Kabul on Aug. 8, 2021. Paula Bronstein via Getty Images

Tens of thousands of Afghans who worked alongside U.S. troops and are eligible for potential relocation to the United States remain stuck in limbo in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, nearly a year after Washington’s chaotic withdrawal from the country. 

There are around 77,200 Afghans who have at least begun applying for a special immigrant visa (SIV) to the United States still in Afghanistan, of which 10,400 primary applicants have received so-called chief of mission approval—a critical step for securing their SIV, according to two U.S. officials and a congressional aide briefed on the latest available data. These applicants often have family members slated to accompany them, so the number of Afghans awaiting safe passage to the United States could be three times that number, officials and congressional aides said. 

The staggering number of SIV applicants showcases how, a year after the United States withdrew from Afghanistan, it has failed to live up to its promise to bring Afghans who helped the U.S. war effort to safety, though the Biden administration says its efforts to do so are ongoing and have no time limit. Many SIV applicants still in Afghanistan fear being targeted or killed by the Taliban, which has already stepped up its campaign of torturing and killing former members of the Afghan military and civilians who supported the U.S. war effort and former Afghan government. Since 2001, as many as 300,000 Afghan civilians, including those who do not meet the threshold of SIV requirements set by the State Department, have been affiliated with U.S. operations in Afghanistan, according to the International Rescue Committee.

Tens of thousands of Afghans who worked alongside U.S. troops and are eligible for potential relocation to the United States remain stuck in limbo in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, nearly a year after Washington’s chaotic withdrawal from the country. 

There are around 77,200 Afghans who have at least begun applying for a special immigrant visa (SIV) to the United States still in Afghanistan, of which 10,400 primary applicants have received so-called chief of mission approval—a critical step for securing their SIV, according to two U.S. officials and a congressional aide briefed on the latest available data. These applicants often have family members slated to accompany them, so the number of Afghans awaiting safe passage to the United States could be three times that number, officials and congressional aides said. 

The staggering number of SIV applicants showcases how, a year after the United States withdrew from Afghanistan, it has failed to live up to its promise to bring Afghans who helped the U.S. war effort to safety, though the Biden administration says its efforts to do so are ongoing and have no time limit. Many SIV applicants still in Afghanistan fear being targeted or killed by the Taliban, which has already stepped up its campaign of torturing and killing former members of the Afghan military and civilians who supported the U.S. war effort and former Afghan government. Since 2001, as many as 300,000 Afghan civilians, including those who do not meet the threshold of SIV requirements set by the State Department, have been affiliated with U.S. operations in Afghanistan, according to the International Rescue Committee.

The United States helped evacuate some 130,000 Afghans from the country in the weeks before Kabul fell to the Taliban, but many left behind face a potential yearslong wait. 

“At the rate we’re going, we’re talking several years, maybe four to five, for these people to get SIV [applications] approved,” said one U.S. official familiar with the matter.

“In the meantime, we’re fully expecting some of them to be killed by the Taliban,” the official added. “Most of the government has forgotten about them, but they’re still on the run for their lives.”

A State Department spokesperson wouldn’t confirm the number of SIV applicants still stuck in Afghanistan but said overall it has issued 15,000 SIVs to principal applicants and their family members and a further 16,000 SIV applicants have submitted all the documents required for SIV approval. 

“The Department of State has the highest respect for the men and women who have taken enormous risks to support our military and civilian personnel,” the spokesperson added. “We take these threats very seriously, and we are committed to providing efficient and secure SIV processing while maintaining national security as our highest priority.”

The SIV program grants U.S. permanent residency, or green cards, to Afghan citizens who helped the United States during its two decade-long war fighting terrorists and Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan. Their ranks include military interpreters, local State Department employees, and other government contractors—some of whom risked their lives and their families’ lives to assist the U.S. government. 

The SIV program has long been mired in bureaucratic red tape and backlogs, but the rapid collapse of the Afghan government and Taliban takeover of the country, which caught the Biden administration off guard and resulted in the chaotic U.S. withdrawal, stretched the mismanaged and underfunded program to a breaking point. The Biden administration last month announced changes to the SIV program to streamline the process, following a move to increase the number of personnel overseeing Afghan SIV applications from eight in early 2020 to more than 50. 

The new changes mean SIV applicants will no longer need to send separate and duplicative paperwork to the State Department and U.S. Customs and Immigration Service and can file their petitions through the State Department alone. The State Department spokesperson estimated it would shave off the wait time for applicants by about a month. 

But other officials and advocacy groups tracking the matter said these changes were wholly insufficient given the sheer scale of Afghans awaiting safe passage to the United States.

SIV petitions move through a lengthy 14-step process that requires applicants to submit documents proving they worked for the U.S. government and go through background security checks. In 2013, Congress set a nine-month limit on the time it should take to process an SIV application, but according to the State Department’s own data released in the first quarter of this year, the average time it took to process an application through all 14 steps was over 19 months. 

The State Department does not begin assessing an applicant’s eligibility until they’ve submitted all the required documents, the State Department spokesperson said. Historically, about 40 percent of applicants do not pass the “chief of mission approval” phase of the application process, according to the spokesperson. 

The Biden administration inherited from its predecessor a massively backlogged system of more than 17,000 applicants amid overall strict immigration policies enacted by former President Donald Trump that slowed the application process. The COVID-19 pandemic further complicated efforts to process those applications and added to the backlog. 

But advocacy groups argue that, after Biden’s decision to fully withdraw U.S. troops from the country over the advice of top military advisors and aides, his administration now bears responsibility for swiftly processing the remaining SIV applicants.

“It’s just baffling that we would leave them to the whims of a future administration when we can do right by them today,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, the president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

Part of the problem is the onerous nature of the application process itself. Many applicants, according to advocacy groups, struggle to obtain the letters of recommendation and employment verification paperwork required to fill out the SIV applications. In some cases, the government contracting companies they worked for went out of business or simply don’t have a point of contact for Afghans to reach out to for proof of employment, leaving them in a bind.

“It puts the burden on the applicants themselves,” said Adam Bates, ​​a policy counsel at International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP). “The U.S. government is in a much better position to have this information.”

In other cases, SIV applicants destroyed their paperwork, fearing for their own safety, as the Taliban began hunting down Afghans who worked with the U.S. government. “After the Taliban became the government of the country, people shouldn’t have hard documentation of their affiliation with the United States,” Bates said. 

Some Afghans since the evacuation last August have arrived on U.S. soil on the basis of humanitarian parole, a special status that allows the U.S. president to temporarily admit foreign nationals. But parole status is not a pathway to citizenship, leaving those individuals at the mercy of the backlogged asylum system. Tens of thousands still in Afghanistan applied for a different visa to enter the United States as refugees, but none of those visas, called the P-2, have been processed, Bates said.

“The default position of our immigration law is: ‘Nobody’s allowed to come here.’” 

That could change, thanks to new legislation. On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill, the Afghan Adjustment Act, that would provide a new pathway for Afghans on temporary visas in the United States to apply for legal permanent residency. But first it must run the gauntlet of getting passed in the Senate—a process that could take months.

The massive influx of new applications, the suspension of operations in the U.S. Embassy in Kabul last year, and compounding pressures due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic have rendered it extremely difficult for the State Department to efficiently review all outstanding SIV applications.

To advocates for Afghan refugees and SIV seekers, these challenges don’t add up to a valid excuse for the current problem—especially amid accusations of double standards in how the United States has streamlined visa bottlenecks for Ukrainian refugees amid Russia’s war in Ukraine versus Afghans. “The U.S. has come up with such creative ways to break promises to Afghans, but that creativity never seems to be applied to solutions,” Joseph Azam, the board chair of the Afghan-American Foundation, said during a recent press briefing hosted by IRAP. 

For some SIV applicants, that bureaucratic waiting time effectively amounts to a death sentence. “For the past year, I have been hiding because I know the Taliban is looking for me,” one SIV applicant told reporters in a recorded message during the IRAP press briefing. The applicant, who used a pseudonym (“Sarbaz”) and requested anonymity due to safety concerns, said he used to work for the U.S. government dismantling Taliban landmines, up until the day he was shot by Taliban soldiers and later paralyzed by the injury.

Despite having applied for SIV status years ago, Sarbaz has yet to hear any updates on his application. “I’m asking the United States government to not abandon us to be killed by the Taliban,” he said. “When you needed us, we have stood by you. And now we need you to stand with us as well. I’m asking President Biden to hear our voices. Our lives depend on it.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Mary Yang is a former intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @MaryRanYang

Kelly Kimball is the social media editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @kellyruthk Instagram: @kellyruthk

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