The Stream

Is the US abandoning its Afghan workers?

On Thursday, April 1 at 19:30 GMT:
US President Joe Biden has a month to decide whether he will stick to a February 2020 agreement with the Taliban that commits the US to pull its troops out of Afghanistan. But as the May 1 withdrawal deadline nears, Afghans awaiting Special Immigrant Visas after working for the US government are fearful that a US exit will leave them defenceless against reprisals by the Taliban and its supporters.

Thousands of Afghans have worked for the US government in the years since US forces invaded and began occupying Afghanistan in 2001, holding jobs as interpreters, drivers, security guards, and embassy clerks. As of September 30, 15,360 Special Immigrant Visas have been issued to Afghan applicants, with 7,140 visas remaining available through the end of 2022.

But thousands of Afghan visa petitioners are facing protracted delays in processing and vetting. With a ruling on each case dependent on in-person interviews, many Afghan applicants find that US embassies and consulates are short staffed, ill-equipped and under-funded to manage the high tide of Special Immigrant Visa applications. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating the backlog.

Each day that is spent waiting for an application to inch through the US immigration system is another day where workers and their families are exposed to attack. Hundreds of Afghans who have worked for the US government or international coalition forces have been killed, many while waiting for visas that would have secured their safety. Family members have also been targeted.

The situation for US-affiliated workers in Iraq is also dire. While the temporary Afghan SIV programme remains open for applicants, a similar SIV programme for Iraq has not been re-authorised since 2014. Thousands of Iraqis have instead had no choice but to lodge applications through the overwhelmed Direct Access Program, within the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). Yet progress of applications via the Direct Access Program has slowed dramatically since Donald Trump signed an executive order in October 2017 that mandated additional screening. In January the programme was put on hold for a 90-day period, amid allegations that foreign nationals stole sensitive Refugee Admissions Program records.

Biden in February issued an Executive Order in which he instructed a review and report on the Afghan and Iraqi Special Immigrant Visa programmes within 180 days. But advocates for visa applicants are alarmed that US government action will be too late for US-affiliated Afghans who may face violence in the event of a US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. Some are calling for Afghan applicants to be evacuated to safe havens, where they can reside while awaiting a final ruling on their visa application.

In this episode of The Stream we’ll meet US advocates looking to improve outcomes for Afghans and Iraqis caught in limbo, and what is needed to tackle the backlog in cases.

In this episode of The Stream, we are joined by:
Kim Staffieri, @kim_staffieri
Founder, Association of Wartime Allies (AWA)

Matt Zeller, @mattczeller
Co-founder, No One Left Behind (NOLB)