When President Biden announced the withdrawal of United States military forces from Afghanistan in April, it didn’t take long for lawmakers and immigration experts to stress that as American troops were drawn down, Afghan nationals who were given the promise of qualifying for a Special Immigration Visa (SIV) would be left vulnerable to the Taliban. Those who would be eligible to apply as potential candidates for Special Immigration Visas (SIVs) have already been identified as targets of threats and violence, with at least 300 interpreters losing their lives for the work they did in supporting U.S. military personnel.
SIVs are a special category of immigrant visas designed in the 21st century to serve translators, interpreters, or other Afghan nationals and professionals who worked to support military staff in connection to U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Recipients of these visas can also have family members or dependents apply for a visa under the coverage of an SIV. The number of available visas for this population is determined by an annual statutory allotment. An overview of the SIV program, and the problems which have hindered its success, has been reported by advocacy organizations in the lead up and response to the Afghanistan withdrawal announcement. The most significant challenges discussed in the report include the SIV backlog and delayed processing (with an application taking an average of three years to be approved), the insufficient number of SIVs for all eligible candidates (18,000 potential applicants to only 11,000 remaining visas), and the large number of SIV recipients and their loved ones who stand in need of evacuation (an estimated 70,000 people).
It wasn’t until May 25th that the Department of Defense began to allude that plans for an evacuation were being made. And then on July 8th President Biden finally acknowledged the issue specifically in his White House Remarks. Biden spoke of the vital role served by SIV candidates in American activity in Afghanistan, and his concern that their families not be exposed to danger. The President stated that the administration has already begun to accelerate the procedure time for SIVs and work with Congress to change the statutory authorizations for SIVs to streamline the approval of the visas. Since January, 2,500 SIV recipients have come to the U.S. according to his comments.
Statements from administration officials following his remarks, and now subsequent reports, have confirmed the finer details. Launching the formal evacuation effort as “Operation Allies Refuge,” a task force will begin flights before the end of the month to evacuate SIV applicants to distinct locations where their visa applications can be safely and properly assessed. The first of these evacuee groups, comprised of 700 SIV applicants and their families totalling 2,500 people, will be taken to the army post Fort Lee in Virginia. Another possible tranche of 2,000 is being sent to military facilities in Qatar. The question of where the remaining evacuation flights in Operation Allies Refuge will go is yet to be answered. It is possible that U.S. territories overseas could be leveraged as temporary solutions. Guam has been hinted at by some in the administration, and advocate groups have also seen Guam as a strong viable option for evacuation sites given its role previously hosting evacuee populations like the Vietnamese and the Kurds in Operations New Life and Pacific Haven, respectively. Although publication of plan specifics is obviously untenable due to security concerns, basic information about how many individuals and families in total will be evacuated, or where the remaining Afghan people will eventually be taken and housed in the interim, is sparse.
Providing a solution for the predicament of Afghan SIV applicants is not the work of the Commander-in-Chief alone. Congress too must act to provide the means for enabling a greater allotment of SIVs and the legal levers to expedite the processing of SIV applications. Below is a summary of various pieces of legislation that work towards meeting those needs.
In the House of Representatives
On May 20th, Representative Jason Crow of Colorado introduced H.R. 3385, the Honoring Our Promises through Expedition (HOPE) for Afghan SIVs Act. The HOPE Act is a bill waiving the requirement of a medical examination for SIV applicants in Afghanistan. This legislation moved quickly and passed a House vote of 336-40. As of July 12th, a companion version has now been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
On May 25th, Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois introduced the Afghan Allies Protection Act, H.R. 3513. This bill approves 4,000 new visas for the SIV program. Advocates have pointed out that there aren’t enough SIVs presently allocated to serve all the potential qualifying applicants – additional statutory allotments would alleviate that concern.
Representative Crow also introduced H.R. 3985, the Averting Loss of Life and Injury by Expediting SIVs (ALLIES) Act on June 17th. The ALLIES Act increases the cap on Afghan SIVs by 8,000 new visas, removes some of the more challenging application requirements that tend to slow down the SIV approval process, and streamlines the definition of who is eligible to apply. The bill came to a floor vote on July 22nd and passed with a roll call of 407-16, but its future in the Senate remains uncertain.
On July 6th, Representative Barbara Lee of California introduced H.R. 4373, the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act. This legislation would appropriate funding from fiscal year 2022 for SIVs through the Afghan Allies Protection Act of 2009, adding to it additional personnel crucial in reducing the backlog of SIV processing and expediting adjudication of SIV cases.
In the Senate
On June 24th, Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana introduced S.2216, the Save Our Afghan Allies Act. By requiring the State Department and the Department of Defense to develop an evacuation plan for Afghan SIV candidates and submit it to Congress within thirty days of the bill’s passage, this legislation was foremost among congressional actions to protect our allies in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, after being brought to the Senate floor for unanimous consent, it was blocked by Senator Rand Paul.
Later, on July 12th, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont introduced S.2311, the Emergency Security Supplemental to Respond to January 6th Appropriations Act. The spending bill contains a provision increasing the number of Afghanistan SIVs from 26,500 to 46,500. It also eliminates some of the burdensome SIV requirements, such as reducing the employment requirement down from two years to just one year, and postpones the medical exam until the SIV candidate reaches the U.S. It also gives SIV status to family members of SIV applicants who lost their lives in Afghanistan.
Both the Biden administration and Congress should continue their work to vigorously amend and pass SIV legislation that expedites the processing of SIV applications; may those in power in America stay committed to aiding those who are at this time powerless in Afghanistan because of the services they have offered. This is an evolving story, whose ending depends on the United States federal government making abundantly clear its dedication to evacuating all SIV candidates and their families alongside our own U.S. citizenry and military from Afghanistan.
Author Biography: Garrett May is a senior moderator for the International Law and Policy Brief (ILPB) and a J.D. candidate at The George Washington University Law School. May received a B.A. in Interdisciplinary Humanities with an emphasis in History and a double minor in Asian Studies and Linguistics from Brigham Young University in 2020. His primary interest is immigration law.