Last September, in the face of withering global criticism for its hurried and chaotic exodus from Afghanistan, the U.S. made a pledge to those Afghans who had worked and fought for Americans: “Helping these Afghans is more than a priority for us — it is a deeply held commitment, and it’s an ongoing one,” said Secretary of State Antony Blinken. “We’re going to do everything we can to keep it in the days, weeks and months ahead.”
One year later, at least 65,000 Afghans who worked for the U.S. government or for contractors associated with the U.S. military are still in Afghanistan, according to No One Left Behind (NOLB), a group working on their behalf. Many face threats from the Taliban and say they feel abandoned by the country that promised them a safe exit.
That number doesn’t include the close family members of visa applicants, meaning the true number of Afghans waiting for answers from the State Department could be as high as 231,000, according to refugee organizations. And the lack of a U.S. Embassy or any American diplomatic presence in the country means those who can’t afford to leave are stuck in limbo.
“The delays in the program are effectively killing people,” Jeff Phaneuf, director of advocacy at NOLB, told Grid. “It’s leaving people trapped in Afghanistan. It’s letting the Taliban hunt down our allies, and that’s just unacceptable.”
The visa in question is the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV), a document that was created expressly for those Afghans who had served alongside Americans in Afghanistan. The U.S. pledged to expedite the SIV process shortly after last year’s withdrawal, but many Afghans report going months without a word from the State Department, which is responsible for processing SIV applications. State Department officials say the process is necessarily complex, and a department spokesperson told Grid that since President Joe Biden took office, they had issued “more than 15,000 SIVs to principal applicants and their eligible family members.”
But many of those approvals predate last year’s rushed evacuations. And one year after the fall of Kabul, and nearly a year after the U.S. pledged to do everything in its power to help Afghan allies, a growing coalition of veterans’ groups, Afghan American associations and refugee organizations has come together to confront the issue head on, using on-the-ground research, litigation and lobbying to try to force the State Department to act on the remaining applications. Earlier this month, a bipartisan group in Congress introduced the Afghan Adjustment Act, drafted in concert with the coalition, that would streamline the SIV process, force the State Department to respond to congressional inquiries about SIVs and provide more paths for residency in the United States.
“Giving our Afghan allies a chance to apply for permanent legal status is the right and necessary thing to do,” said Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who introduced the legislation.
Even with bipartisan support, it could take months for the bill to get through the Senate. Meanwhile, those 65,000 Afghans remain in a bureaucratic logjam — and a potentially life-threatening one.
No U.S. Embassy, no interview
For all the challenges the SIV applicants face, none is more profound than a basic catch-22 involving official interviews. Those lucky enough to proceed through the 14-step application process are finding themselves stuck on a crucial next step — an in-person interview with a U.S. official. The reason is simple — and for the applicants and their advocates, it’s infuriating: There’s no one in Afghanistan to conduct the interviews. The State Department abandoned its embassy and withdrew all diplomatic staff last summer, an evacuation that ran in tandem with the U.S. military withdrawal.
“[The United States] is currently not processing parole applications in Afghanistan because we currently don’t have a presence there,” Department of Homeland Security Deputy Assistant Secretary for Border and Immigration Adam Hunter told a veterans association.
The only option for these people? Find a way out of Afghanistan. “Afghan SIV applicants who are able to travel outside of Afghanistan and have reached the visa interview stage can transfer their SIV applications to other immigrant visa processing posts outside Afghanistan,” a State Department spokesperson told Grid. Asked why the interviews cannot be conducted online for those without the means to leave the country, the spokesperson told Grid, “U.S. law and Department of State regulations require immigrant visa applicants appear personally before a consular officer to sign their application and verify their application by oath and, at that time, provide fingerprints. Fingerprints are required for security vetting.”
The U.S. is not helping any SIV hopefuls leave Afghanistan, and refugee advocates and Afghan nationals say that leaving is risky for Afghans who face possible retribution for their U.S. service and who would be forced to transit multiple Taliban checkpoints to leave the country. One Afghan who spoke on the condition of anonymity told Grid he had made it to Pakistan but had to transit 12 Taliban checkpoints along the way.
The process is also expensive. One SIV applicant told Grid he was quoted a $6,000 fee to be escorted over the border to Pakistan and be provided the necessary documents. That is more than the average Afghan makes in a year.
“It’s what happens when you don’t take aggressive reaction to an emergency, then it becomes a world of who has the power to figure something out or who has the resources to get out,” said Phaneuf, himself a Marine Corps veteran who fought in Iraq. “Many of the folks who worked for the U.S. as interpreters were not wealthy people with the means to do this, and even ones who are wealthy by Afghan standards — I mean it’s prohibitively expensive.”
As for the dangers facing those still in Afghanistan, these differ depending on the nature of the work they did for the U.S. One former Afghan security officer who worked at the U.S. base at Bagram Airfield told Grid the Taliban visited his home less than a week after he fled.
According to a survey of applicants by the Association of Wartime Allies, a veteran-led group committed to helping Afghans, 29 percent have reported being imprisoned by the Taliban in the year since the U.S. withdrawal, and 51 percent reported being questioned or detained. Ninety-seven percent said they are fearful of leaving their homes.
Female SIV applicants face even greater risk
According to advocacy groups, women make up an estimated 7 to 10 percent of the SIV applicant pool — somewhere between 5,000 to 8,000 people.
On their return to power, Taliban leaders vowed to keep high schools open for girls — but reneged soon after. More than 1 million girls are now barred from classrooms. Afghan women — many of whom thrived under the previous government’s rule — have found themselves at particular risk since the Taliban takeover. Eighty-six percent of female SIV applicants still in Afghanistan reported experiencing violence; 34 percent reported that they, or a female member of their family, had been sexually propositioned by a member of the Taliban.
In the same survey, more than 98 percent of female SIV applicants have reported a loss of economic opportunity based on their gender in the last year.
“I’m a woman with two kids and have no income, hiding from Taliban,” a 36-year-old using the name Nadia told the Association of Wartime Allies. “My husband worked in previous government central police department, appointed by U.S. embassy. We are running out of resources, and got no support yet. I hope the evacuation process will start soon.”
“Since the return of the Taliban regime, I am living in hiding in Kabul, have lost my job, my spouse has lost his job, my father-in-law supports us financially only for bread, water and some other basic necessities,” a 32-year-old Afghan woman wrote in response to the survey. “I didn’t choose to be in this situation nor I am responsible for it, so I beg you to please help me and do something before it is too late.”
Fighting the SIV logjam
Grid spoke with an Afghan who applied for the SIV a year ago. He had a job with the U.S. Army, and his wife worked with an Afghan government agency. “We are under threat. If they find me, I’m the direct target for them,” he said, referring to the Taliban. He said he has been unemployed since the Taliban took power and hasn’t had any response to his SIV application. He is living in hiding and says he cannot afford the expense of leaving the country.
“Nowadays we are nearly starving, there is not income for a year, not enough food,” he said.
While the State Department continues to say it is moving at a reasonable pace, the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) filed a class-action lawsuit that claims otherwise. Its case against the State Department is based on the fact that the congressionally mandated response time for the SIV application is nine months; the lawsuit has been filed on behalf of a group of Afghans whose applications have stretched longer than that. They point out that the State Department’s own data shows that most applications take over two years and often more than four.
They also claim the department’s quarterly reports on the SIV have included flawed data, “masking the full extent of the delays from the public and Congress,” and that the State Department’s website, where Afghans go for instructions, contains numerous errors, incorrect information and “outright misstatements of the law.”
“It is evident to anyone who is familiar with the SIV program that this is an issue that defendants do not take seriously,” Peter Lucier, a Marine Corps veteran and member of the coalition, wrote as part of the filing. “Publishing information without conducting basic fact-checking and spreading it to thousands of at-risk Afghans — who face persecution and starvation everyday — is an indication of the institutional callousness and disregard Defendants have for those who have applied for the SIV program.”
Even before the 2021 evacuations and the subsequent flood of applications, the SIV program was plagued by staffing and IT issues, according to a 2020 State Department Inspector General report. The report found that the department “relies on multiple information technology systems that are not interoperable, which impedes the ability to expedite processing at all stages of the Afghan SIV process.”
Meanwhile, the fact remains that any improvements in these areas — the application process, the website and so on — will be meaningless for applicants who lack the means to leave Afghanistan and thus cannot be granted an in-person interview.
The ones who made it out
One year ago, in the chaos and frenzy of the evacuations from Afghanistan, tens of thousands of Afghans did make it out of the country. The best estimate was that 130,000 Afghans got on those last flights out. It was a remarkable feat of logistics and bravery on many counts.
But those who escaped benefited more from luck and connections than the SIV process. A review found that only a small fraction of the evacuees were SIV applicants or even potential applicants. And in 2022, only 1,478 SIV applications have been cleared.
The State Department says it has increased staffing, including tasking consular officers from the U.S. Embassy in Brazil to process the Afghan SIV applications. But a consular officer who worked closely with the SIV program told Grid it wasn’t nearly enough. “We are completely overwhelmed,” the officer said. “There is a complete lack of coordination in the department.” The officer is not authorized to speak about the matter and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Those Afghans who made it to the U.S. face another problem: Time is running out. Nearly 100,000 Afghans have arrived in the U.S. since August of last year, and according to IRAP, 76,000 of them have no pathway to permanent legal status. They did not enter the country as refugees, the vast majority do not have SIVs, and as such they are technically not eligible for “Lawful Permanent Resident” status. They were instead admitted under humanitarian parole, which allows a stay of up to two years. The current pipeline for the asylum process from all countries is massively backlogged — 1.4 million cases are in the queue. An SIV would take care of that problem — but again, that’s a logjam as well.
Meanwhile, at the current rate, many of those SIV applicants still in Afghanistan may remain in a kind of limbo for years.
“What we are seeing are small improvements, improvements that can make all the difference for an individual, but that are not nearly commensurate with the size and gravity of the task,” said Sunil Varghese, policy director at IRAP. “The U.S. military and diplomatic presence in Afghanistan may have ended last August, but the U.S. government’s obligations did not.”
“We have dreams that our daughter go to school in USA,” the SIV applicant in hiding in Afghanistan told Grid. “This is the only reason to stay alive for us: hope.”
An earlier version of this article misstated where Marine Corps veteran Jeff Phaneuf fought. This version has been corrected.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley and Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.