A vast majority of Americans across the political spectrum — 90 percent of Democrats and 76 percent of Republicans — support resettling vulnerable Afghans in the US amid the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. The Biden administration is surging resources to make that happen, speeding up visa processing for Afghans employed by the US government to support the 20-year war effort and trying to secure humanitarian aid for refugees. But it still seems as though many of them could face a monthslong wait before they can start a new life in the US.
Roughly 88,000 people who worked for the US government during the war, as well as their family members, are in the application pipeline for special immigrant visas (SIVs). Some are being sent to other countries to wait; others who are further along in the process are being sent to the US directly for resettlement.
There are also many thousands more who aren’t eligible for those visas but who might try to apply for refugee status through a recently created US priority program. But they will have to stay in third countries — where they will need financial support, among other kinds of aid — for months while they are being processed. US vetting requirements, capacity limitations at refugee resettlement agencies, and a finite number of slots available under the current refugee admissions cap could all contribute to delays in bringing them to American soil.
With better preparation, this last-minute scramble to set up the infrastructure to receive Afghan refugees may have been averted. Though the task might be more challenging now than it would have been a few months ago, the Biden administration has acknowledged that it faces a moral obligation to ensure those people not only get out of Afghanistan but also are able to access humanitarian protection in the US.
“This was completely foreseeable,” said Yael Schacher, a senior US advocate at the advocacy group Refugees International. “We could have gotten these people out months ago. It’s really uncertain now.”
After announcing the withdrawal deadline in April, the Biden administration put its faith in the SIV program, which has existed since 2006, as its primary means of bringing Afghans to the US. But an intense, 14-step application process and a significant backlog that piled up during the final months of the Trump administration have made it an onerous immigration pathway for many who aided the US war effort, even before Kabul fell to Taliban control.
Applicants are required to submit significant documentation, including a recommendation letter from their senior US-citizen supervisor. But many Afghans who would otherwise be eligible for the program have difficulty obtaining that recommendation letter, especially in cases where they worked as contractors.
Even if an applicant can gather the required documents, they have faced lengthy wait times before they are ultimately approved for a visa. By law, SIVs are required to be processed within nine months, but in practice, the average processing time has always been longer than that.
The Trump administration actively stonewalled the program, meaning that not a single SIV was processed between March 2020 and January 2021. In response, a federal judge ordered the government to come up with a plan to process these applications in a timely manner after thousands of SIV applicants sued. Yet it’s still been taking about two years to process the applications.
Now, the Biden administration is surging resources to speed up processing of SIV applicants, who are being sent to third countries temporarily before being brought to the US. According to the State Department, the US government has been issuing SIVs at a rate of more than 800 per week — an eightfold increase over the course of a few months.
“Even before [the evacuation operation started], we were undertaking an interagency effort to clear a backlog of applicants, to identify how and where to relocate SIVs in various stages of the application process, and to work with Congress to revise qualifications for the SIV and streamline our processing requirements,” a State Department spokesperson told me in an emailed statement.
SIV applicants are staying in intermediate way stations at the Al Udeid and As Sayliyah military bases in Qatar, the Ramstein US Air Base in Germany, and in Italy, Spain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain. The facilities in Germany, Italy, and Spain have the capacity to house up to 15,000 people at any one time, according to the State Department.
Though the US has agreed not to house Afghans at its German air base for longer than 10 days, it’s not clear how long those sent to the other countries will stay there. Some advocates, however, are concerned that Afghans will end up waiting in third countries for prolonged periods and have argued that the US should instead just bring all of them to the US directly, through what is called “parole,” and complete processing on American soil.
The Biden administration has started allowing certain SIV applicants who have already passed background checks and a medical screening, but have not been issued a visa, to come to the US on parole — which allows them to live and work in the country for up to two years — but it’s not clear whether that is happening on a wide scale. An August 23 Department of Homeland Security memo indicates that people who are likely eligible for the SIV program will also be paroled into the US on a case-by-case basis.
Refugees are being flown to one of three army bases in the US: Fort Bliss in Texas, Fort McCoy in Wisconsin, and Fort Lee in Virginia. Those bases are preparing to receive as many as 22,000 Afghans altogether, providing them with temporary housing, medical screening, food, religious support, and other necessities.
Some immigrant advocates have raised concerns that they could stay in those bases on a long-term basis, possibly for more than a year, before being transferred to their final destination. The choice to send Afghans to Fort Bliss, which also houses thousands of migrant children, is particularly worrisome, given that the facility is the subject of an ongoing government watchdog investigation over allegations of abuse and poor conditions.
SIVs can choose their final destination themselves, either opting to be near family members already living in the US or selecting from a list of 19 cities spanning from Phoenix to St. Louis. Alternatively, they can request that a refugee resettlement agency choose a placement that would suit them best.
Once issued a visa, they also become eligible for the same kind of services offered to refugees to help them get their footing in the US and become self-sufficient within six months: basic necessities, temporary housing, cash assistance, job training and placement, and English classes, among other forms of aid.
But the availability of those services could be scarce given the constraints on the refugee agencies that operate these programs, many of which were gutted by President Trump, who slashed the annual refugee admissions cap from 110,000 to just 15,000 during his time in office.
Under Trump, refugee agencies saw their federal funding reduced, forcing them to scale back their infrastructure and staffing to keep their resettlement programs afloat. More than 100 resettlement offices — nearly a third of the nationwide total — closed, and many government staff tasked with processing refugees abroad were laid off or reassigned.
Now, those agencies will have to find landlords willing to rent out affordable accommodations amid a national housing shortage. They also need to rebuild relationships with employers willing to hire refugees. And they will have to recruit and train volunteers to help furnish apartments for newly arrived Afghan families and drive them to medical appointments, English classes, and job interviews.
Congress should allocate additional funding to ensure that those agencies have the resources they need to accommodate the arrivals of thousands of Afghans, Dan Kosten, assistant vice president of policy and advocacy at the National Immigration Forum, said in a press call.
“[Refugee agencies] have resettled tens of thousands of refugees every year, and can do this,” he said. “But their infrastructures have been reduced over the last several years, given the record low number of refugee arrivals, and they need the resources upfront to rapidly rebuild those infrastructures.”
Afghan refugees could face a long path to reaching US soil
In addition to the SIV program, some Afghans have the option of applying for refugee status in a third country.
The Biden administration recently opened up a new pathway for Afghans (and their families) who have worked for a US government-funded program, US-based media, or non-governmental organizations, but who don’t meet the narrow requirements for the SIV program, to come to the US as refugees. But they would have to overcome some significant hurdles.
First, the eligibility criteria for this so-called “P-2” program is still fairly narrow. Individuals can’t even apply for themselves — US employers have to refer a qualified individual for the program. That means that, for example, a local construction crew that built a school run by a US-funded aid group might not be afforded refugee protection. Some US-based advocates have called on the administration to broaden the scope of the program.
But even those eligible under the current criteria would somehow have to arrange travel out of the country on their own, and not all of those under threat might be able to make that dangerous and potentially expensive journey, especially if they live in the nation’s outer provinces, where neighboring countries have recently reinforced their borders in an attempt to deter potential refugees.
So far, it seems that Pakistan, Iran, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkey have seen the largest number of Afghan arrivals. But even if these people are eligible for refugee status, they might find themselves stranded abroad for 12 to 14 months without humanitarian assistance, in places that have less-than-pristine human rights records.
During a press conference at the White House on August 20, President Biden said the administration has discussed the need to “work with the international community to provide humanitarian assistance, such as food, aid, and medical care for refugees who have crossed into neighboring countries to escape the Taliban.” He recently allocated an additional $500 million in emergency funding that will in part provide that kind of assistance.
But there remain a lot of unanswered questions in terms of what kind of support Afghan refugees might expect to receive once they reach a third country, and how the US will go about processing them.
“It can be a good path for thousands of people, but it’s not an immediate one,” Schacher said. “Many people probably won’t be able to find work and support their families. So having US funds available for that could be helpful if it’s going to be a long wait.”
The US could increase the number of US Citizenship and Immigration Services officers it sends abroad to interview Afghan refugees or conduct more of those interviews virtually in order to speed up processing. But there might also be a bottleneck stateside. The annual refugee admissions ceiling is 62,500 for this fiscal year, which ends in October. Just 4,000 of those spots can go to refugees from Europe and Central Asia, which includes Afghanistan.
This means that most Afghans applying for refugee status will be waiting until at least October, when Biden has pledged to raise the refugee admissions ceiling to 125,000. It’s likely he will drastically increase the proportion of those spots that can go to Afghans. But how quickly approved Afghans can be resettled might also depend on the capacity of refugee resettlement agencies in the US.
It’s also possible that Biden could implement a program allowing for private sponsorship of Afghan refugees that he previewed in a February executive order. In that case, private individuals and community groups, not just refugee resettlement agencies that receive government funding, could support additional Afghan refugees exceeding the 125,000 cap.
“A lot of people are volunteering to sponsor refugees, so I do think it would be a good idea to channel that energy into a private resettlement pilot,” Schacher said.
But the Biden administration has yet to articulate its plans on that front, leaving much work to be done in the coming months to make refugee resettlement a viable pathway to the US for Afghans.