Afghan Allies Left Stranded: Inadequacies of the Special Immigrant Visa Program

by Karina Melencio
Image: Ahmed akacha / Pexels

The aftermath of the U.S. army’s complete withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s takeover gave attention to the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) Program and how it can help evacuate the estimated 256,000 Afghan allies left stranded within the country. Numerous reports and reassessments of the program came through that showed the flaws of its slow, year-long bureaucratic processes (such as the application review period), and inability to sufficiently serve the rising number of applicants when Afghans need it the most.

The SIV is a program intended to protect Afghan allies from dangerous insurgent groups and anti-American organizations. These allies are, specifically, Afghan nationals who work as translators, interpreters, and employees under the U.S. government to support the U.S. Armed Forces, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), and numerous other humanitarian and non-profit or non-governmental organizations. The program involves providing permanent protection through seeing their admission process to the U.S. until the very end: from issuing their visas, granting their Legal Permanent Residence (LPR) status, to giving them resettlement services and aid.

SIV Program Backlog Applications

Currently, the number of backlogged SIV applicants is about 18,000—each of whom has neither been granted a visa nor informed of their application status. Applicants report that contacts through email have been unresponsive for up to an entire month. The U.S. government’s own scrutinization found that it takes 658 days to review each SIV application. Other investigations even discovered that the State Department is severely understaffed for effectively processing backlogged applications. This period is only the tip of the iceberg, as it can take up to nine months for applicants to simply gather the necessary application files in the first place.

In an article by foreign policy journalist George Packer, the stories of several Afghan interpreters hoping to flee the country are presented. One of these is Khan, a man with a pregnant wife and a young son, who are seeking a safe haven after the Taliban bombed their hometown. After a rigorous process, all that was left was to receive an email from the U.S. embassy confirming their approved visas. However, on the day that they urgently needed to book their tickets, the email still had not been sent. They were only able to successfully book their flights because of the help from the Miles4Migrants organization. Khan’s experience demonstrates that something as small as an email can mean so much for the survival of a family.

Each second that the embassy and State Department fail to update and inform Afghan applicants of their status and next steps is another second that hampers their successful evacuation, and above all, their safety. Noah Coburn, professor of political anthropology at Bennington College, conducted qualitative research about SIV recipients’ experiences and explained that “…there is increased danger to those who have worked for the United States government or supported American efforts in the country, making the coming year particularly dangerous for stalled applicants.” Such dangers have manifested in August, a few days after the fall of Kabul, exemplified by the Taliban’s search for high-profile females, most of whom are activists, interpreters, and officials that served under the then-U.S.-led Afghan government. 

Lacking Support from Resettlement Programs 

In addition to the program’s continual backlogs, the SIV has also been criticized by recipients for its lack of support to successful applicants once they enter the U.S. In fact, the U.S. government does not itself oversee the resettlement services that recent arrivals receive. Most are redirected to outsourced resettlement agencies.

Coburn’s interviews with SIV recipients found that one of their main points of concern was the lack of job assistance and employment aid for new arrivals. According to a survey conducted by No One Left Behind, despite most of the newly settled Afghan SIV recipients being high school and college graduates and at “prime working age”, 28% were still unemployed and struggled to find employment. The Government Accountability Office survey indicates that 90% of SIV recipients are still unemployed two months after their arrival. Although there is government financial aid available for SIV recipients, unemployment and financial dependency hinder them from accessing the necessary resources for upward economic mobility.

Besides inadequate job assistance, some SIV recipients were not properly informed of their options for locations of resettlement. For instance, SIV recipients had a difficult time adjusting within the country, as they would be sent to one location where the surrounding social circles, networks, and culture were vastly different from their own. Others were “forced to relocate” to seek cities where they would have better social connections.

Giving Back to Afghan Allies

In a time of crisis, the smallest action and detail can change a great number of lives. In the case of Afghanistan, the U.S. government has a duty to protect those who have assisted their missions and devoted years to work alongside American troops and organizations. 

The lives of Afghan citizens were already put on the line once they were employed as contractors to support the U.S. government’s war against their country. Thus, the U.S. must assume responsibility for their security in the same way they do for their soldiers, diplomats, and other contractors of different nationalities. Withdrawing troops and leaving their Afghan allies in the hands of the Taliban without a sufficient support program is nothing short of betrayal and abandonment.

In order to truly give back to those who have assisted U.S.’s actions in Afghanistan, the SIV Program must be further supported financially, sped up during emergency periods (such as now), and strengthened to aid the evacuation and resettlement of the surge of Afghan applicants after securing their visas.

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