US Streamlining Visa Process for At-Risk Afghans

Abdul is the father of four children aged 3 to 10. His wife, Jamila, is learning English.

“I’m teaching my wife. I need her mind to stay busy,” he said.

Abdul and Jamila are not their real names. They head an Afghan family hiding from the Taliban in Kabul, Afghanistan.

“My wife has depression and anxiety attacks. She’s always thinking about me, about my safety. … My daughters ask me every day, ‘Can we go play outside?'” Abdul told VOA via WhatsApp and Signal messages.

Abdul was a border officer who served in the Afghan Army. One of his jobs was to guide a robot to study explosives and disarm them. While Abdul has managed to keep his family safe, others have not been so lucky. His former captain was taken from his home last October during a Taliban raid.

The 30-year-old and his family are among the thousands of former Afghan military personnel who stayed behind after the conclusion of nearly 20 years of war. The U.S. completed its withdrawal in August 2021 and helped evacuate more than 130,000 Afghans in the chaotic final weeks. But one year after the massive evacuation, many of those who could not leave still hope for a life in the United States.

Among them are Abdul, Jamila and their children.

Safe passage

The Biden administration has sought to expedite processing for at-risk Afghans who leave the country, but the exact route Afghans take to reach the United States is not being publicized for security reasons.

The State Department did not comment on U.S.-chartered flights. On background, a spokesperson said the U.S. encourages Afghanistan’s neighbors to keep their borders open to allow entry for Afghans.

“We continue to work to facilitate safe passage for U.S. citizens, LPRs [legal permanent residents], SIV [Special Immigration Visa] holders, Afghan allies, and their eligible family members who want to leave Afghanistan,” a State Department spokesperson told VOA. “For security and operational concerns, we will not share details of these efforts. However, the issue of safe passage is an issue we continue to engage on.”

The spokesperson also said the U.S. government is increasing its resources to process eligible Afghans outside of the U.S. through the Special Immigrant Visa program available to military interpreters and others who worked for the U.S. government. SIV recipients can become eligible for permanent U.S. residency while the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) gives a clear path to U.S. citizenship.

“Which maximizes efficiencies by handling immigration processing requirements and domestic resettlement placements while overseas,” a State Department spokesperson said, adding, “All potential travelers to the United States continue to undergo extensive biographic and biometric security vetting conducted by our law enforcement, counterterrorism and intelligence agencies.”

The United States boosted resettlement assistance by $1.2 billion last year, allowing an expansion of processing facilities, including Camp As Sayliyah (CAS) in Doha, Qatar.

A State Department spokesperson told VOA that innovations to refugee processing at Camp As Sayliyah have “dramatically” shortened the timeline from arrival to departure, and most who are approved depart within 30 to 60 days of arrival.

“We are working to incorporate efficiencies at CAS to expedite processing for Afghans in other third countries. While we continue to improve our system for relocating and resettling Afghan allies in the United States, what won’t change is our commitment to keeping Americans safe,” the spokesperson said.

In March, U.S. government officials told the Washington Post on background that about 7,000 Afghans were on U.S. bases awaiting resettlement. Speaking with VOA, the State Department did not divulge how many are currently awaiting resettlement.

Afghans evacuated to the United States warn of even more extreme hardships and dangers for their brethren stuck in Afghanistan, where more than half the population endures critical levels of hunger, according to aid agencies.

“We are working on trying to find evacuation opportunities. But so far, they’ve all failed,” Ryan Mauro, founding director of the Afghan Liberty Project, told VOA.

Mauro said some people fleeing Afghanistan are making it to Iran and Pakistan, but they find themselves living in “horrible” conditions.

“[They] very often get beaten and tortured and then deported back to Afghanistan. So those aren’t routes that we necessarily recommend for people, but some people are willing to try it,” he said.

Mauro and those working at the Afghan Liberty Project built a network of contacts where Afghans hiding from the Taliban could live in safe houses. But because funds “dried up,” the network of safe houses is shutting down.

“It looks like we’re going to have to close down the safe house network in the next month or two,” Mauro said, adding that even with secret hiding places, any semblance of freedom has been taken away from Afghans.

“They don’t get sunlight if they’re inside all day. They’re jailed with their own depressive thoughts. And that is torture — to be locked in a place of desperation where the only thing you have is your own negative thoughts; that is torture,” Mauro said.

Other ongoing efforts

Back in the United States, the Biden administration announced on July 18 a streamlining of the SIV process for Afghans, in which applicants would only need to file one form — cutting down on paperwork and processing it through a single government agency.

As of July 20, new applicants — some in the SIV pipeline — no longer needed to send a separate petition to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for special immigrant status, keeping the entire process within the State Department.

“We do anticipate that, at a minimum, this change in process will shave about a month off of the adjudication time, but even more importantly, I think, ease a great administrative burden on the visa applicant. So, the process from the U.S. government side can be eased by a month or potentially more. … It’ll be a lot easier for the applicants as well,” a senior government official said.

As of July, U.S. officials counted 74,274 applicants in the SIV pipeline, not including spouses and children. As many as 50,000 applications could be approved.

Standard SIV applications usually move through a lengthy 14-step application process, which requires specific criteria to be met and takes an average of three years to complete. Applicants must have a visa to enter the United States.

In the call, Biden administration officials said although all new Afghan SIV applicants — and most of the applicants already in the pipeline — are no longer required to submit a separate 19-page form to USCIS, the “bottom line” is the United States will still need all necessary and required information to process someone’s SIV application.

“But it will be one form instead of two, and I think that the new, revised form that will be submitted to the State Department, while it still contains all of the critical information, I believe is a shorter form to fill out,” said one senior official.

Various U.S. agencies were involved in determining what kind of information an applicant needs to submit in the new form.

In the meantime, Abdul, Jamila, and their children are still waiting for the safest opportunity to leave Afghanistan, a country where they thrived before the U.S. withdrawal.

“This is jail [now]. … We were so happy. I was doing my duty at the border. We used to have picnics and go to weddings. We were happy,” Abdul told VOA.

Nike Ching, State Department Bureau Chief, contributed to this report.

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