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Sluggish visa program imperils Afghan partners as US withdraws

Caroline Simon, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in News & Features

After Ismail Khan, a former Afghan interpreter for the U.S. Army, applied for a special immigrant visa to come to the United States, he waited more than two years. During that time, he lived with constant threats, unable to work or stay in one place for too long.

He was eventually granted a visa and moved to the U.S. in 2014. He’s since helped other special immigrant visa applicants through an advocacy group called No One Left Behind.

But Khan’s deeply distressed about what will happen to people like him once the U.S. completely withdraws from Afghanistan by September.

The Afghan Special Immigrant Visa Program, established in 2009 to provide a safe haven for Afghans who worked for the U.S. government, is beset by delays, facing a backlog of several thousand applications. The law requires visa applications to be processed within nine months, but current wait times stretch for years.

That’s not enough time for Afghans who risk persecution or death at the hands of the Taliban when U.S. troops leave. And lawmakers, including veterans who served in Afghanistan, have started to sound the alarm.

“The people reaching out to me are in a state of full panic,” said Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., who did multiple combat tours in Afghanistan, the Middle East and Africa.


“They are afraid, not just for their lives but their for their family’s lives, and are reminding us that they stood with us at great risk against extremists. And they feel utterly abandoned.”

Waltz knows someone whose family member was killed while on the waiting list for the visa program.

“They don’t just put their lives on the line, they put their whole family’s lives on the line,” he added.

In April, a bipartisan group of 16 lawmakers wrote a letter to the White House, pressing the Biden administration to expedite processing for the Afghan SIV program. The members also pledged to start a working group to coordinate White House engagement.


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