The Case for Expediting Special Immigrant Visas amid a Transition of Power in Afghanistan

Disclaimer: Please note that the situation surrounding Afghanistan has rapidly changed in the last 72 hours and will continue to evolve following the publication of these critical questions.

Following nearly 20 years of war in Afghanistan with a cost of more than $2 trillion and 241,000 lives lost, the United States fully committed to a military withdrawal. As a result, the ground situation in Afghanistan has become increasingly uncertain and unstable with significant damage to critical infrastructure (e.g., power grids) and heavy civilian casualties.

As of August 15, the Taliban have caught the international community unaware and led a successful military campaign to rapidly capture major regional capitals and commercial hubs (e.g., Kunduz, Sar-i-Pul, Herat), take control of at least 345 administrative districts, and capture most of Kabul and the presidential palace. President Ashraf Ghani fled Kabul for Tajikistan, and the Taliban are expected to announce the formation of a new government in short order. Simultaneously, a major refugee crisis is occurring with thousands of Afghans fleeing the violence and seeking pathways out of the country. In 2021 alone, over 270,000 Afghans have been displaced. By the end of July, an estimated 30,000 Afghans were fleeing Afghanistan each week even prior to last weekend’s events.

For the past 20 years, the United States has relied heavily on the assistance of Afghans serving as interpreters, translators, and in other capacities to support its military, diplomatic, and development efforts in the region. Those who have aided the United States are most vulnerable to retaliation and targeted attacks by the Taliban, as demonstrated by the recent execution of 22 surrendering Afghan commandos.

As the United States takes control of the Kabul airport and evacuates its personnel from its embassy, it should ask itself what it owes to all the Afghans who have assisted in the effort to build a democratic Afghanistan and what actions it can take to support them in a destabilizing context. The capacity to do so any longer may be increasingly limited, but the United States should continue to help its Afghan allies at risk. The United States should prioritize expediting the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) process and opening other migration channels.

Q1: What is a Special Immigrant Visa? Why is it important? Who is included?

A1: Similar to previous conflicts such as Vietnam (1954–1975) and Iraq (2002–2011), individuals who aid the United States in specific capacities are eligible for SIVs, which allow qualified people to immigrate to the United States.

Following the fall of Saigon in 1975, the United States successfully evacuated 140,575 Vietnamese refugees. This process, including background checks, occurred in less than a full year and resulted in the settlement of 129,792 refugees to the United States. This quick movement was largely facilitated by strong congressional action and appropriation of funds to enable evacuations and resettlements.

During the Iraq war, two SIV programs were created to help people obtain a U.S. visa. The main program was established in 2008, specifically to help evacuate Iraqi translators and interpreters. However, despite over 100,000 Iraqis being eligible for an SIV, due to various obstacles, the United States only issued around 2,000 visas. The Iraq portion of the SIV process was stopped in 2014, and those who were in the midst of the process still do not know if they will ever be approved to enter the United States.

The Afghanistan SIV process covers Afghan nationals employed by or on behalf of the U.S. government or the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Around 20,000 Afghans are currently in the pipeline waiting for an SIV, while up to 70,000 Afghans—including applicants and their immediate family members—are eligible to apply. The process of acquiring a visa involves complex and multi-step requirements that may no longer be a viable option as violence increases. To qualify, applicants must have been employed in Afghanistan for a period of at least two years. Many are stuck in the process of filling out a lengthy application, collecting documents, and requesting employment verification. As they wait for status updates, SIV applicants are in immediate danger. There is also a potential that thousands of Afghans will be excluded from the process because they did not work the full two years or are unable to prove their service.

The international community has called on the United States to extend the SIV mandate (or other forms of immediate protection) to vulnerable groups of Afghans, including journalists, humanitarian workers, activists, and children. Of significant concern are women and girls, who risk immediate loss of rights they have gained over the last 20 years. While the Taliban stated they will support women in the country, they have already begun to destroy educational facilities and images of women. Women across the country now contend with the prospect of being forced into marriages and having their rights stripped away, a fear that is even more acute for young women who have only known a more open Afghanistan. This also includes the many women who have worked for the United States or participated in high-visibility rights programs.

Q2: What is the process for obtaining an SIV?

A2: SIVs require a 14-step process with paperwork in both Washington, D.C., and Kabul, involving at least six different U.S. agencies, including the National Visa Center, Afghan SIV (ASIV) Unit, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, the Bureau of Consular Affairs, and U.S. intelligence agencies. The State Department recently updated the procedure to five stages: apply to the chief of mission, file a petition with USCIS, prepare a visa application, attend a visa interview, and arrive in the United States for final processing. Typically, the longest of these steps is getting the U.S. Embassy in Kabul’s chief of mission approval, which includes a lengthy background check. There is no timetable provided to applicants—the estimated application and processing time is nine months (or 273 days); however, the real average is 415 to 480 business days, not including time between steps.

The HOPE Act, which passed the House of Representatives on July 29, 2021, would remove the need for medical clearance, which is currently a major hurdle for applicants.

Q3: What are some challenges in obtaining an SIV?

A3: In combination with the withdrawal and recent events, the United States’ capacity to handle the SIV process has dramatically decreased as the situation on the ground becomes increasingly unstable. While the U.S. embassy operates from Kabul and focuses on embassy evacuations, it is unclear if the process to obtain SIVs for those still in Afghanistan will be able to continue. The United States does not have control over routes to the airport, and now has limited ability to reach those who remain in Kabul, let alone SIV applicants living in the rest of Afghanistan. The U.S. embassy has issued orders to U.S. citizens in the capital to shelter in place. As the Taliban cement their control over Afghanistan, the SIV process has become exponentially dangerous. SIV applicants may first need to find a way out of the country before they can continue with the arduous application process.

The Biden administration has committed to evacuating some applicants, but so far, those only make up a small percentage of the total applications currently in the pipeline. Reports estimate that there are still up to 60,000 who could qualify for a SIV or similar program who have not been evacuated. For those who manage to flee Afghanistan or risk continuing the SIV process from within the country, there are still several challenges in applying for an SIV. One of the most difficult steps is securing the necessary letters of recommendation from U.S. military personnel and military contractors with whom they worked, especially if those “sponsors” moved out of Afghanistan or left the armed forces. No One Left Behind, a nonprofit group focused on SIVs, has continued to coordinate efforts to acquire letters and send them to the State Department despite changing events.

The SIV approval process was also strained by the Covid-19 pandemic. Two significant steps in the SIV process, medical clearances and in-person interviews, were halted for long stretches of time in 2020 and 2021 due to Covid-19 outbreaks. Medical clearances could only be given at one Kabul facility partnered with the U.S. government. Given recent developments, it is unlikely either medical clearances or interviews can be conducted in Kabul.

Q4: What has been done to expedite SIVs?

A4: Prior to the Taliban taking control of Afghanistan, the Biden administration initiated several programs to expedite the SIV process. The U.S. Congress has also worked on legislation that would complement the administration's efforts.

On July 14, 2021, the Biden administration launched Operation Allies Refuge aiming to evacuate 2,500 people (700 applicants and their families) to the Department of Defense–recommended Fort Lee, Virginia. Other countries and U.S. territories such as Guam were discussed as possible holding destinations. Evacuations began the final week of July and used chartered commercial aircraft as opposed to a military evacuation. No One Left Behind offered to purchase plane tickets for Afghans who had been approved through the SIV process to accelerate their departure. Otherwise, SIV holders were set to wait up to three to five months for the United Nations and the International Organization for Migration to schedule their flights. At the same time, on July 23, the Biden administration authorized $100 million in emergency funds for Afghan refugees and $200 million from U.S. government agencies to assist refugees.

In addition to the HOPE Act, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the bipartisan Averting Loss of Life and Injury by Expediting SIVs Act (ALLIES Act) on July 22, 2021. The act added some 8,000 additional visas and aimed to remove some of the more burdensome application requirements like medical clearances and providing a “credible sworn statement” of threats to applicants. It also expands eligibility to include those who worked with allied forces.

On August 2, 2021, the State Department also announced Priority 2 (P-2) designation for eligible Afghans and family members, granting them access to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). This program is for Afghans who worked with the U.S. government or through U.S.-funded programs or organizations that are not eligible for SIVs due to type of employment or time limitation reasons. They might have eventually been eligible for resettlement, but only once their visa applications (those already in pipeline) were processed. Importantly, those eligible for a P-2 designation cannot apply in Afghanistan and would need to make their way to another country to apply.

Even with recent action from the White House and Congress, the impact of the last 72 hours has changed the operational space and made evacuations more difficult. A loss in control of the airport would end any ability for evacuations or SIV access. The Biden administration will likely need to reevaluate the SIV process and newly formed P-2 designation and find alternative options to aid Afghans who have assisted the United States over the past 20 years. Processing of SIVs may have to rely on those who can flee to third-party countries that have agreed to host them until the completion of their visa approval process. The United States is in negotiations with Tajikistan and other central Asian states (e.g., Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan), and on August 15, Albania and Kosovo agreed to temporarily house refugees seeking U.S. visas, a process that will be partly managed by U.S. security authorities.

Q5: What are other countries doing?

A5: The situation in Afghanistan is constantly changing, and the international community will have to adjust protocols and strategies to mitigate the Taliban’s seizure of the country and capital, as well as increase refugee migration flows out of Afghanistan. Multiple countries, mostly U.S. allies, have evacuated their embassies in Kabul over the weekend and are quickly finding ways to get their citizens out of the country. Other countries such as China and Russia have decided to continue their diplomatic presence in Kabul despite the power transition.

Prior to the fall of Kabul, other countries and NATO allies made their own decisions regarding the refugee crisis and whether they would implement their own versions of an SIV process. In April 2021, NATO allies began withdrawing their troops from Afghanistan. Germany finished its military withdrawal of its last 570 troops on June 29. Some NATO members offered asylum to Afghans who worked for them. For example, France offered asylum to families of its embassy’s Afghan employees, and the Italian Defense Ministry launched Operation Aquila to transfer 270 collaborators and their families and is evaluating 400 others. Likewise, Canada announced on July 23 that it would resettle Afghan interpreters, embassy staff, and their families, and in May the United Kingdom accelerated its five-year process of resettling Afghans who assisted the UK mission.

Turkey on the other hand, is focused on maintaining regional stability, holding the Kabul airport, and preventing an influx of Afghan refugees across the Turkish border. President Erdogan reached out to Iran and Pakistan on the emerging refugee crisis and is considering increased border security measures such as walls to stem the flow of migrants.

Daniel F. Runde is senior vice president, director of the Project on Prosperity and Development, and holds the William A. Schreyer Chair in Global Analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Elena Méndez-Leal is a program coordinator with the CSIS Project on Prosperity and Development.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2021 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Daniel F. Runde
Senior Vice President; William A. Schreyer Chair; Director, Project on Prosperity and Development
Elena I. Méndez Leal

Elena I. Méndez Leal

Former Program Coordinator and Research Assistant, Project on Prosperity and Development