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Sluggish visa program imperils Afghan partners as US withdraws

Caroline Simon, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in News & Features

“There are thousands of these folks who knew what they were getting into and took on great risk to themselves and their families to serve with us, and we cannot leave them behind,” said the top Democrat on the letter, Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., who served in Afghanistan as part of the Joint Special Operations Task Force.

The fiscal 2021 omnibus appropriations bill, signed into law in December, authorized 4,000 additional Afghan visas, bringing the total number to 26,500 visas authorized since 2014. Crow said there are about 18,000 applications waiting, a number he expects to rapidly rise.

But the pace of approval is slow. According to the most recent quarterly report for the program, just 237 principal visa applications were granted in the last three months of 2020, plus 1,084 more for family members.

Longstanding issues

The Afghan SIV program was struggling long before the troop withdrawal announcement heightened the urgency of granting visas. In 2020, a State Department inspector general report laid bare a myriad of issues with the program, from staffing shortages to a lack of a centralized database to insufficient protection for visa applicants outside their workplaces.

Last December, more than 1,000 Afghan and Iraqi SIV applicants petitioned the incoming Biden administration for a speedier process.

 

The White House has made some moves to fix the problem. In a February executive order, President Joe Biden directed the State Department to review the Afghan SIV program and submit a report within 180 days that includes an “assessment of whether there are undue delays in meeting statutory benchmarks for timely adjudication of applications, including due to insufficient staffing levels.”

Applicants face an increasingly challenging — and dangerous — bureaucratic obstacle course to obtain special immigrant visas.

Waltz said a diminishing military presence in Afghanistan forces applicants to travel long distances with their necessary documentation, increasing the risk of being stopped by the Taliban. Applicants must pass a medical exam and provide a letter of recommendation from their former supervisor, who they may not have had contact with for years.

The program has also been hamstrung by Trump-era “extreme vetting” requirements making it difficult for any immigrant from a majority-Muslim nation to obtain a visa, said Adam Bates, policy counsel at the International Refugee Assistance Project.

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