Special Visa Program for US-affiliated Afghans faces demise

Afghan families waiting at Kabul airport while US forces having a watch on them on August 16, 2021, a day after fall of Kabul to the Taliban.

A program that resettles Afghans who worked with the U.S. government in the United States could come to a standstill later this year, leaving tens of thousands at risk of Taliban retribution following the 2021 U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The congressionally authorized limit of 38,500 Special Immigration Visas (SIVs), which offer a path to U.S. citizenship, is expected to be reached by the August anniversary of the withdrawal. The divided U.S. Congress appears unlikely to approve the Biden administration’s request for an additional 20,000 visas.

“We have somewhere around 8,000 SIVs left,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said during a briefing. “We have urged Congress to raise the cap and allow us to meet our obligation to those Afghans who put their lives on the line for the United States.” Once the remaining SIVs are issued, over 10,000 applicants and their families, cleared for final vetting and interviews outside Afghanistan, will be unable to start new lives in the United States, a State Department official said on condition of anonymity.

Tens of thousands of other Afghan applications yet to reach that stage are also awaiting processing. A failure to raise the SIV cap would be a “moral travesty and national security failure,” said Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan and is leading efforts in the House to increase the limit. The program’s potential end comes amid an immigration backlash and United Nations reports of Taliban atrocities against former officials and soldiers, despite the Taliban’s denial of these charges.

130,000 Applications Still Unprocessed

The proposal to increase visas is stalled in government funding debates, with no consensus to include it. Shawn VanDiver, president of #AfghanEvac, criticized House Speaker Mike Johnson for blocking the proposal, thus “preventing tens of thousands of eligible Afghans from accessing their American dream.”

Johnson’s office did not immediately respond to a comment request. Even an additional 20,000 visas “would not be enough to finish the job,” VanDiver said, citing a State Department report from September indicating some 130,000 applications were awaiting processing, not including applicants’ families.

“We have an obligation to the tens of thousands of Afghans who stood with us through 20 years of battle,” said Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, who co-sponsored a bill last year with Crow to add 20,000 visas to the SIV cap and extend the program through 2029. Since 2014, Congress has almost annually extended the program and raised the cap, although processing slowed significantly under the Trump administration.

The current cap of 38,500 visas was set in 2022. While the Senate approved raising the ceiling and extending the program last year, House Republicans did not. SIV processing has since accelerated following Biden administration and congressionally mandated improvements, but the nine-month processing goal remains unmet, according to Adam Bates of the International Refugee Assistance Project. “It would be unconscionable for this group to get caught up in this partisan morass,” he said.