Tens of thousands of Afghan nationals risked their lives to assist the United States military in Afghanistan, many of them working as interpreters alongside American soldiers in combat. Now, after the Taliban’s takeover, they are more desperate than ever to leave — but swift, safe passage to the United States may prove elusive.
More than 300,000 Afghan civilians have been affiliated with the American mission over its two-decade presence in the country, according to the International Rescue Committee, but a minority qualify for refugee protection in the United States.
Among them are those who worked with the U.S. military, qualifying them and their families for special immigrant visas. However, thousands are stuck in a yearslong backlog that is only ballooning as the situation on the ground deteriorates after the withdrawal of American troops.
About 2,000 such people whose cases already had been approved have arrived in the United States on evacuation flights from Kabul, the capital, that began in July. The most recent arrivals landed on American soil late on Sunday before being processed at a military base in Virginia, according to refugee resettlement agencies.
President Biden said on Monday while addressing the nation that there were plans to airlift more Afghan families in “coming days,” though he provided no details.
Refugee advocates said they feared that thousands of vulnerable people were likely to be left behind, at their peril, as militants tightened their grip on Afghanistan’s territory. The Taliban have closed border crossings, leaving the Kabul airport as the only exit from the country.
Those who supported the U.S. mission face the possibility of grave retribution from the Taliban, said Jenny Yang, vice president for advocacy and policy at World Relief, which has resettled hundreds of special immigrant visa recipients in recent years.
Who are the vulnerable allies?
Since 2002, the United States has employed Afghans to assist U.S. troops, diplomats and aid workers. Many were threatened, kidnapped and attacked, and an unknown number killed, as a result of their association with the United States. In response, Congress created the special immigrant visa programs to give such workers a path to legal residency in the United States.
But the programs, which enjoy broad bipartisan support, have been marred by processing delays.
Who qualifies for visas?
Applicants must show they have been employed for at least two years by the U.S. government or an associated entity. Among other paperwork, they must prove they performed valuable service by providing a recommendation from an American supervisor. They must also show that they have experienced, or are experiencing, a serious threat as a consequence of their work for the United States.
How many are waiting to come?
More than 15,000 Afghan nationals, plus family members, have already been resettled in the United States with special immigrant visas, out of a total of 34,500 authorized visas.
At least 18,000 people have applications pending, and that number is expected to increase considerably given the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan.
“We have clients who applied 10 years ago,” said Betsy Fisher, director of strategy at the International Refugee Assistance Project. “Some have applied in the last few weeks out of concern for their lives.”
Critics say that the U.S. government, going back several administrations, has delayed special immigrant visa approvals by demanding an extraordinary amount of documentation as part of an unwieldy 14-step process.
Applicants have faced average wait times of three years, though Congress had specified that it should take no more than nine months. Many have been waiting as long as a decade for the outcome of their cases.
“We see people fall into pernicious cycles, where they get a document, submit it and the review process takes so long that the office then requires updated information that can take months or years to review,” Ms. Fisher said.
In addition, security checks can often take years to complete, she said.
Are they considered refugees?
Special immigrant visa recipients are eligible for the same resettlement benefits as refugees. They arrive with green cards, and can apply for U.S. citizenship after five years. But they are not classified as refugees, nor do they count against the number of refugees that the United States commits to admitting each year.
How is the Biden administration resolving the crisis?
The U.S. government since July has evacuated about 2,000 interpreters and their family members whose cases had already been approved. They were brought from Kabul to the Fort Lee military base south of Richmond, Va., and many have since been sent to cities across the country.
But staff members from refugee resettlement agencies were notified after the latest flight landed on Sunday that plans to evacuate more Afghans had been suspended.
Garry Reid, a civilian Pentagon official charged with handling the evacuations, said on Monday that 700 Afghan allies had been evacuated in the previous 48 hours. He said the United States would scale up by receiving more departing Afghans at U.S. military bases, but he did not offer a specific timeline.
Last week, U.S. officials announced that 1,000 staff members would be dispatched to Qatar, where many of those leaving Afghanistan are assembling, to accelerate the processing of visas.
“We recognize the risk that they face and we are doing everything we can to get this operation underway at scale so we can get through as many as possible under these very difficult conditions,” Mr. Reid said.
The Biden administration also had been negotiating with several countries in the Middle East and Central Asia to temporarily host some people until they can be resettled in the United States.
But it was not clear whether it would even be possible to evacuate more Afghan allies, at least for now, given the volatility on the ground.
The Biden administration recently announced it would allow Afghans to use the regular U.S. refugee program, another pathway to resettlement. Eligible applicants would include people who worked for nongovernmental organizations, media outlets and others affiliated with the United States, as long as they are referred by their employer.
But that still does not offer immediate safe haven to Afghans needing urgent protection, refugee advocates said, simply broadening the pool of people seeking entry to the United States.
How has the country handled allies after previous conflicts?
The United States evacuated more than 100,000 Vietnamese to Guam before and after the fall of Saigon in 1975.
President Gerald R. Ford created an interagency task force to transport, process and resettle the refugees. The governor of Guam agreed to host them temporarily, and the allies were evacuated by air and sea.
It would have been better to similarly evacuate everyone in Afghanistan with a pending application and continue the review process in a safe place before accelerating a withdrawal, said Adam Bates, policy counsel at the International Refugee Assistance Project.
“There was no reason it had to come to this mad scramble in the last hours of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan,” he said. “These evacuations could have happened months ago and should have.”