Nearly two years after the United States evacuated approximately 124,000 people from Afghanistan, tens of thousands of Afghans who worked for the U.S. government remain inside the country, facing fear of Taliban persecution.
Over 152,000 Afghans who say they have worked for the U.S. military in Afghanistan prior to the Taliban's return to power in August 2021 have applied for the Special Immigration Visa (SIV) program. As of May, some 17,000 principal SIVs remained in the congressionally authorized program.
"Every day that our allies spend in Afghanistan is a day they remain in extreme peril," said Andrew Sullivan, director of advocacy at No One Left Behind, a charitable organization supporting Afghans and Iraqis who worked for the U.S. military during the past two decades.
Sullivan said his organization has documented and will soon release a report about "shocking cases of systematic, retaliatory violence committed by the Taliban against SIV" applicants in Afghanistan.
To tackle the challenges confronting the SIV program, U.S. Senators Jeanne Shaheen and Roger Wicker have introduced legislation called the Afghan Allies Protection Act of 2023. The act aims to authorize 20,000 additional principal SIVs through 2029, along with other administrative reforms.
Arash Azizzada, co-founder of Afghans for a Better Tomorrow, a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization, said his organization currently supports about 200 Afghan asylum-seekers in the U.S., and among them are SIV applicants whose applications were either delayed or rejected, prompting them to take a long and perilous journey from Afghanistan to the United States through South America.
More than half of SIV applications are unsuccessful for various reasons, including failure to provide acceptable documentation to prove they worked for the U.S. for at least a year.
The program is also plagued by administrative delays. Through the end of 2022, SIV application processing by U.S. government agencies on average took 628 days, according to the Department of State.
"At the president's direction, we have undertaken substantial efforts to improve the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program to streamline the application and adjudication processes, while safeguarding our national security," said a State Department spokesperson.
As a result, the spokesperson said, over 27,000 SIVs have been issued since January 2021 – significantly more than in previous years – and the application processing time has been reduced to 314 calendar days this year.
U.S. officials say many aspects of the SIV program, including approval from the chief of mission, are mandated by law.
While the U.S. has no diplomatic mission in Afghanistan, SIV applications have been processed at 57 U.S. embassies and consulates in different parts of the world since September 2021, the spokesperson said.
"What is needed is a permanent and sustainable solution," said Helal Massomi, a policy adviser with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a refugee support organization that has assisted thousands of SIV beneficiaries in the United States.
Since its inception in 2009, more than 101,000 Afghans have benefited from the SIV program, with Congress authorizing a specific number of visas annually.
A comprehensive solution, Massomi told VOA, should also include settlement pathways for the tens of thousands of Afghans who were evacuated in 2021 and then brought to the U.S. and offered temporary parole.
Unlike SIV beneficiaries who qualify for permanent residence (green card) after arriving in the U.S., the parolees have no such option.
The Afghan Adjustment Act, proposed legislation that offers a legal pathway for the permanent settlement of Afghan parolees, has been stalled in Congress for almost a year, despite widespread support from veteran, refugee and human rights groups.
Expand the SIV
While the Afghan Allies Protection Act seeks 20,000 additional SIVs for Afghans who worked for the U.S. military, there are calls for an expansion of the SIV program to include other vulnerable groups.
In March, Representative John Garamendi introduced a bill that seeks to offer SIVs for Afghan Fulbright students.
From 2003 to 2021, more than 900 Afghans received Fulbright scholarships, and most of them were required to return to Afghanistan at the end of their studies in the United States.
Afghanistan has been characterized as a gender-apartheid regime under Taliban rule, with women being denied basic rights to work and education and excluded from public spaces.
Despite strong condemnation of the Taliban's misogynistic policies, the United States has not established a special visa program for Afghan women suffering from Taliban repression.
U.S. officials say Afghan women and other persecuted individuals can seek consideration under the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP), which takes referrals from the U.N. refugee agency.
Another program, called P2, offers immigration opportunities for Afghans who previously worked for civilian U.S. projects in Afghanistan.
"We have seen very small numbers of P2-referred Afghans arrive in the U.S.," Cinthya Hagemeier, a communications expert with the International Rescue Committee, told VOA.
"In addition to general USRAP processing backlogs, delays have also occurred due to P2 designation requirements, where individuals must be processed outside their country of origin. That requirement particularly impacts Afghan women who are not able to travel without a male chaperone," Hagemeier said.