Faced with a shrinking pool of visas, the U.S. embassy in Kabul has started turning away Afghan military translators and other Afghan nationals seeking to immigrate to the United States through a decade-old special visa program.
A State Department official said Friday the embassy stopped scheduling new special immigrant visa interviews for Afghans on March 1 after concluding that it had enough unused visas only for those who are already in the final stages of the application process.
As of March 5, only 1,437 special immigrant visas were available for Afghans, while there were more than 15,000 Afghans in various stages of the application process, the official said, adding that the embassy expects to exhaust its pool of visas by June 1.
"The department regularly makes adjustments to our visa processing in order to ensure that we do not exceed the visa numbers allocated by Congress," the official said, requesting anonymity to discuss the change in policy. "We do not expect to resume scheduling appointments unless new SIV numbers are allocated by Congress."
While the official said the U.S. remains committed to supporting Afghans that have helped the U.S. mission at great personal risk, advocates for Afghan refugees slammed the decision.
"This devastating development means that thousands of trusted allies will remain in danger, waiting for Congress to allocate visas that were clearly needed months ago," said Betsy Fisher, policy director for the International Refugee Assistance Project in New York.
The Special Immigrant Visa program was created by Congress in 2008 for Afghan military translators, but was later expanded to cover any Afghan who could demonstrate "at least one year of faithful and valuable service" to or on behalf of the U.S. government.
With tens of thousands of U.S. forces serving in Afghanistan, the program long enjoyed bipartisan support, with Congress extending it annually and authorizing 7,000 visas in 2015 and 2016.
But with the U.S. combat mission winding down and anti-immigrant sentiment on the rise during the presidential campaign, opposition to the program grew. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, then a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a longtime critic of the program, led an effort last year against increasing the number of special immigrant visas to Afghans.
As part of a compromise, Congress extended the program for four years but allocated just 1,500 visas for the 2017 fiscal year.
Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a long-time advocate of the visa program in Congress who had unsuccessfully pushed for 2,500 visas for 2017, said she'll soon introduce legislation for additional visas and "use every available opportunity to move this through Congress."
“Allowing this program to lapse sends the message to our allies in Afghanistan that the United States has abandoned them,” Shaheen said in a statement issued late Thursday.
Julie Tarallo, a spokeswoman for Senator John McCain, another strong proponent of the program, did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
Word of the halted visa program comes just five days after President Donald Trump signed a second executive order limiting travel. While the order blocks the issuance of travel visas to people from six countries, Afghanistan is not one of them. However, the order does cut refugee admissions by more than half, to 50,000.
The first travel order, barring travelers from seven majority-Muslim countries, was halted in the courts February 3, a week after it was issued. Even though the order was stayed, at least one Afghan family that arrived in the U.S. under a Special Immigrant Visa was detained.
A former Afghan military translator, his wife and three children were detained for more than 40 hours after arriving at Los Angeles International Airport on March 2, according to IRAP. The translator was placed in detention in Orange County, while his family was booked on a flight to Texas where they were to be held in detention.
All five were released after IRAP and other refugee advocates asked the U.S. district court in Los Angeles to intervene on their behalf.
IRAP did not disclose the translator’s name for security reasons.
Nike Ching at the U.S. State Department contributed to this report.