What is the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) Program?
Do you support the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program for Afghans who worked with the U.S.?
What’s the story?
- The Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program for Afghans who worked for the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan as interpreters and similar roles along with their families has been in the spotlight since the U.S. evacuation of Afghanistan began earlier this summer and concluded at the end of August. The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan has put Afghan SIVs and their families at risk of execution, and there are already reports of the group murdering those who worked with the U.S. and the coalition.
- As of September 1st, it’s unclear to federal agencies exactly how many Afghan SIVs and their family members were evacuated before the U.S. completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan. However, a senior State Dept. official told Politico and the Wall Street Journal that the majority of Afghan SIV holders and applicants weren’t evacuated, while NBC News reported that preliminary figures suggest only 8,500 out of tens of thousands of Afghan SIVs were able to make it through Taliban checkpoints to catch a flight out of Kabul.
What is the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program?
- In 2006, Congress established the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program to allow Afghans and Iraqis who served alongside U.S. forces as interpreters or contractors for at least two years to receive permanent U.S. resident status and access to benefits for refugees. In addition to the primary SIV applicant who worked with the U.S.-led coalition, their spouse and unmarried children under the age of 21 may also be granted SIVs.
- From the creation of the SIV program to March 31, 2021, a total of 99,279 individuals received SIV visas, including 30,541 Afghans and Iraqis who worked with the U.S. plus 68,738 dependent spouses and children, according to data from the State Dept. That total over the life of the program to date includes about 18,000 Afghans plus 45,000 of their family members.
- When the Afghanistan pull-out began in earnest, the SIV program had an application backlog of around 18,000 to 20,000 primary Afghan applicants. When their family members were taken into consideration, it’s likely the number exceeded 70,000.
- The SIV application has 14 steps which include in-person interviews plus medical and security screenings. Overall, the process can be relatively time-consuming, particularly if an applicant struggles to find the proper documentation or schedule in-person screenings. By law, the SIV application process has a benchmark of nine months from submission to approval, but in practice, it has been much longer.
- The State Dept. Inspector General and the Congressional Research Service noted that staffing for the program has generally remained constant since 2016 but was not sufficient to alleviate the applicant backlog, with average processing times rising from 287 business days in April 2014 to 410 calendar days in January 2017 to 996 calendar days as of January 2021. Some have waited several years for final approval. Processing was delayed further with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused processing and interviews at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul to be paused at times during 2020 and 2021.
- Congress has acted on several occasions over the years to adopt bills to address the visa shortage by incorporating legislation into defense authorization bills.
- Most recently, a bill that increased the number of Afghan SIVs by 8,000 to meet demand, reduced the employment eligibility requirement from two years to one year, postponed required medical exams, and opened eligibility to surviving spouses and children of murdered applicants became law at the end of July.
What are other visa programs for Afghans?
- The State Dept. opened the Priority 2 (P-2) refugee admissions process to eligible Afghans and their family members in August 2021.
- It’s intended to be available for Afghans who worked for the U.S. or U.S.-funded programs but aren’t eligible for SIVs due to the nature of their employment or because they didn’t work in that role for long enough.
- P-2 applicants couldn’t apply for visas from Afghanistan prior to the Taliban’s takeover, and must still go to another country to apply.
- The Association of Wartime Allies, a veterans group advocating for Afghan allies in the SIV and refugee admissions process, has estimated that the number of Afghans eligible for P-2 visas who haven’t been evacuated could be more than 198,000.
- Afghans Who Aided U.S. Military Against the Taliban Begin to Arrive in America as Evacuation Ramps Up (7/30/21)
- Biden Urged to Expedite Visas for Afghan Interpreters Facing Taliban Death Threats or There Will Be ‘Blood on His Hands’ After U.S. Withdrawal (6/22/21)
— Eric Revell
(Photo Credit: Soldier & Afghan Interpreter: U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Teddy Wade via Flickr / Creative Commons)
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