By Beth Bailey
In 2018, the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) filed a class-action suit against the U.S. government for failing to adhere to the nine-month processing turnaround promised in special immigrant visa program guidance. A plan the government proposed last month to come into compliance with SIV guidelines shows the " Biden administration continues to try to escape its court-ordered obligations," IRAP’s Supervisory Policy Counsel Adam Bates told me.
Bates estimates there are 150,000 Afghan SIV applicants currently awaiting processing. On average, he said each applicant applies with three other family members. No matter where these Afghans are living, they face serious challenges. SIV applicants who arrived in the U.S. in August or September of 2021 have a "cloud of uncertainty hanging over them" as their two years of parole soon draw to a close, Bates explained. He said applicants in third countries outside Afghanistan have not been able to resume their lives and could be in legal jeopardy or face exploitation by criminals or militants. Applicants in Afghanistan under Taliban rule, he added, are living in a situation that is "unstable, dangerous, and life-threatening."
Among the concerning caveats in Biden's proposal is the language that eschews defining a timeline for conducting SIV interviews in favor of deferring to scheduling availability at particular consular posts. The government’s plan also states that 4,500 applicants will be processed for Chief of Mission approval, the first step of the SIV process, during each fiscal quarter. At this rate, IRAP estimates that simply processing 67,000 Afghan applicants who await Chief of Mission approval will take three and a half years. Bates emphasized that it will take even longer to process 77,000 applicants whose applications have yet to be deemed documentarily complete.
Jeff Phaneuf, director of advocacy at No One Left Behind, is also concerned about the implications of the government’s proposal. "No One Left Behind has received reports of well over 200 SIV applicants killed while awaiting their visas. … Bureaucratic delays mean life or death for those who stood alongside U.S. troops throughout 20 years of war."
Awaiting COM approval in Afghanistan has taken a toll on Rabia, whose name has been changed for her security. Rabia applied for an SIV in August 2021, and thus far has only received a case number. Rabia spends her days indoors, unable to work or afford basic expenses. Every day, she battles to find the will to keep living as a woman crushed by the Taliban. "My mental state is very damaged," she told me. "The only thing that comforts me is crying."
Fawad, whose name has also been changed, is a member of the Hazara minority. Since the Taliban takeover, he has endured insecure situations and worked menial jobs to feed his family of four. A neurological disorder has compromised Fawad’s son’s mobility, but fear of reprisal keeps the boy from attending doctor’s appointments. For the past 11 months, Fawad’s SIV application has been subject to interminable processing snags. Weeks ago, the State Department requested updates to Fawad’s letter of recommendation. His supervisor has not responded to requests to amend the information, leaving Fawad frantic for assistance.
Applicants also face delays after receiving COM approval. Phaneuf told me about a former U.S. Army interpreter who received COM approval in August 2020. No One Left Behind moved the man to Pakistan in February 2022, where he completed his SIV interview and medical testing in June. For no discernible reason, the interpreter remains stuck in Pakistan with his status pending.
Our allies are facing unthinkable fear and desperation as they await SIVs. We must ensure the government adheres to mandated timelines and brings our allies swiftly to safety.