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Advocates fear special US visas for Afghans could run out despite dangers

Senators push to authorise additional visas for Afghans who worked with the US military and now face Taliban reprisals.

Washington, DC – As the United States withdrew its troops from Afghanistan in 2021, millions of Afghans faced the prospect of life once more under Taliban rule.

For thousands among them, the danger was particularly acute: They had worked with the departing Americans and could be subject to Taliban reprisals as a result.

But a long-running US programme offered the possibility of life abroad: Translators, contractors and other Afghan employees with direct ties to the US military were eligible for a Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV.

Now, less than three years later, advocates fear this narrow immigration pathway — a cornerstone of Washington’s relief efforts — could quietly fall victim to deadlock in the US Congress.

The legislature must pass a set of budget appropriations bills before March 22 in order to avert a government shutdown. But critics fear the package will pass without authorisation for more Special Immigrant Visas for Afghans, leaving them with even fewer options to escape the threats they may face.

On Thursday, a bipartisan group of legislators sent a letter (PDF) to top Senate leaders urging them to include the provision for Special Immigrant Visas in the final version of the appropriations bills.

Senator Jeanne Shaheen, one of the letter’s signatories, told Al Jazeera in a statement that Afghans connected to the US military remain “at grave risk, as the Taliban continue to hunt for them”.

“For two decades, the US military mission in Afghanistan relied on trusted Afghan allies who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with American troops,” said Shaheen. “We promised to protect them — just as they did for us.”

Jeanne Shaheen speaks at a podium for a press conference in the US Capitol
US Senator Jeanne Shaheen has pushed for 20,000 additional Special Immigrant Visas for Afghans to be authorised this year [Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/Reuters]

Protecting Afghan allies

Shaheen is one of 13 senators pushing for 20,000 more Special Immigrant Visas to be included for Afghans in the 2024 State and Foreign Operations (SFOPS) appropriations bill, part of the budget package that needs to pass this month.

But immigration is a hot-button issue in the US election year, and advocates worry anti-immigrant sentiment could scuttle attempts to increase access.

Revised drafts of the Afghan Allies Protection Act — which sets the parameters for the Special Immigrant Visas — were introduced in both the House and Senate last year. But while the Senate Appropriations Committee authorised the 20,000 additional visas, the Republican-controlled House has not approved more on its end.

Because the visa programme for Afghans — first established in 2009 — was considered temporary, Congress has to regularly extend its mandate and adjust the number of visas available.

Currently, there are just 7,000 special visas left for principal applicants, but advocates say there are more than 140,000 pending applicants, with at least 20,000 nearing the final stages of the process.

The current processing rate is about 1,000 applicants a month, which means the visas are set to run out around August — the month that marks the third anniversary of the US troop withdrawal. Without further legislation, it is unclear what would happen next.

“I’m just mystified by this whole thing,” Kim Staffieri, the executive director of the Association of Wartime Allies (AWA), told Al Jazeera. Her organisation helps Afghans associated with the US military with their visa applications.

“I’ve been doing this for seven, eight years, and have never come to the point of worrying about running out of [SIVs] ever,” she said.

Few options for Afghans

The possibility that the programme could run out of visas has left Afghans like Abdulrahman Safi feeling betrayed.

Safi, 35, worked with both the US military and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Afghanistan, before fleeing on an evacuation flight to the US in 2021.

“We come here with all these promises: ‘We won’t leave you behind,’” Safi told Al Jazeera. “Now it feels like none of that matters.”

Safi is one of the tens of thousands of Afghans who have applied for Special Immigrant Visas. The shortage, however, only compounds existing problems with the programme: Critics say it has been dysfunctional for years.

The spike in applications following the 2021 troop withdrawal, advocates add, has only amplified the mile-high application backlog.

There are relatively few options outside of the Special Immigrant Visas — and they too suffer from long wait times and tight caps on the number of applicants admitted.

Some Afghans who evacuated in 2021 were granted humanitarian parole, a temporary status with no pathway to permanent residency or citizenship. Others have applied for asylum status, although that process is likewise backlogged and can take years, with no guarantee of success.

A victim of partisanship

Support for the special visa programme has historically been bipartisan in the US, due in no small part to widespread advocacy from veterans groups, according to Adam Bates, a supervisory policy counsel at the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP).

In many ways, he said, the programme has been “compartmentalised away from the broader immigration debate”.

“The Afghan SIV program has been around since 2009. For that entire time period, it has enjoyed widespread bipartisan support,” said Bates. “It had support across presidential administrations, even during the [Donald] Trump administration.”

Bates is among the advocates who worry the programme may be falling victim to partisanship in Congress, heightened by November’s impending general elections. The immigration debate has played a prominent role in campaigns so far.

Joseph Azam, a lawyer and board member for the Afghan-American Foundation, told Al Jazeera he fears other issues are overshadowing the Special Immigrant Visa programme for Afghans.

“For whatever reason — because we’re in election year, there are other things going on in the world, or people are just not paying attention — this programme has gotten to the point of almost withering away,” he said.

“That would be catastrophic for the tens of thousands of Afghans who have been left behind, who are in hiding with their families and were some of the first on the kill list for the Taliban when they took over.”

Azam noted that no legislators have spoken out in opposition to the Afghan programme, but he nevertheless feared that the visas could become a political tool during the election season.

President Joe Biden has been widely criticised for his handling of the chaotic troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, and Azam said the episode could be used as a “cudgel” for his critics in Congress.

“Perhaps there’s a sense that, if they passed [the additional SIVs], it would kind of address some part of the wound,” he said.

Azam added that politicians might be seeking to avoid perceptions that they are lax on immigration. “Immigrant populations — particularly from that part of the world — are very convenient boogeyman during an election year.”

‘A backstab’ to Afghans

Helal Massomi, the Afghan policy adviser for the nonprofit Global Refuge group, is herself an evacuee who fled to safety in the US. She previously held an advisory role in the US-backed Afghan government, helping to lead peace talks before the Taliban takeover.

She worried that Congress’s apparent indifference to the Afghans who worked with the US military could be a canary in the coal mine. If Congress will not act to protect those Afghans, she wondered, will it act to protect any Afghans in vulnerable situations?

“This shows that, with every day that passes, the commitment that was out there for standing by the allies — the Afghan allies — is fading away,” she told Al Jazeera.

Massomi has recently led efforts to pass legislation that would create a pathway to residency for the Afghans evacuated to the US. But those bills have languished in Congress amid Republican opposition.

She has also pushed for more immigration pathways for vulnerable Afghans outside of the US. That includes an expansion of the Priority 2 (P-2) programme, which was set up to offer access to Afghans who worked with US-based organisations but do not qualify for Special Immigrant Visas.

She noted that some of the most vocal critics of Biden’s Afghan policy have remained silent on the issue of approving more SIVs.

“I completely support criticism towards the administration,” she said. “But you can’t do it if you yourself are in inaction.”

The message that inaction sends is chilling, she added. “I think it’s a backstab to the Afghans who stood by the army and the American citizens in Afghanistan.”


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