The U.S.’s special immigrant visa program for Afghan contractors is broken, according to a report released Monday, but there are promising signs that the Biden administration may be open to fixing it.
A deep backlog of requests, combined with a lack of visibility on how many Afghan contractors have worked for the U.S. government and what has happened to them, has plagued the program, researcher Noah Coburn wrote, in a paper published through Brown University’s Watson Institute.
“Many of these military interpreters and other civilian workers are no longer safe in their own homes, threatened by anti-government fighters and criminal groups,” according to the report. “Yet the U.S. visa system designed to save them is slow and inefficient, with a current processing time of over two years.”
The program, created in 2008, came as a response to concerns about the fate of Iraqi and Afghan interpreters and other local national contractors who worked with American troops and government officials, but it has fallen into disarray as the wars in those countries have stretched into two decades.
In 2019, nearly 19,000 Afghans were waiting for SIV approval, more than the total number who have received the visa since the program began, according to the paper.
“At least hundreds of these Afghans have been killed already as a result of their alliance with the United States government and the lives of thousands of others are at risk,” Coburn wrote.
The issues are three-fold, according to the report: It takes a dangerously long time to make it through the visa process; Once one does, they receive a small amount of money and are brought to the U.S., but there is no follow-up on how they settle in; and if the visa is rejected, there is no tracking of that Afghan national’s fate.
As many interpreters, fixers and others were hired on an ad-hoc basis, there is no central database with the identities of everyone who helped U.S. troops or officials on the ground in Afghanistan.
“Many of those interviewed for this paper interpreted this as evidence of, at best, America’s lack of commitment to those who had supported American presence, and at worst, as outright corruption, as often paying agents for assistance is the only way for people to secure a visa,” according to the paper.
But there is some hope. President Joe Biden on Feb. 4 signed an executive order that included a provision for reviewing the special immigrant visa program, giving six months for the State Department to report any recommendations to the White House.
The order also calls for review into expanding SIV program to any local nationals who help U.S. officials, no matter the country.
The program is “plagued by inefficiencies and still moderately successful at providing visas to a certain number of Afghans,” with more than 18,000 SIVs approved as of 2020, granting legal residence to those Afghans and 45,000 of their family members.
Recommendations include creating a database of known contractors; creating definitions of “service” by Afghans and the resulting “threat” to their safety, as well as guidelines for how to prove those in order to help Afghans and State Department staffers speed up the approval process; and job or education assistance for SIV recipients once they arrive in the U.S.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.