More than a year after the collapse of Kabul, Afghans who helped the US during the war are still struggling to get special immigrant visas and only a small percentage have made it through the process, fueling the frustration of lawyers trying to help even more.
The State Department has issued just 18,000 of the visas to Afghans and their families since President Joe Biden took office — a small fraction of the number requested — due in part to a shortage of staff and a dysfunctional system, according to a report by the agency’s inspector general was released this week. The slow pace continues, though applications for special immigrant visas, or SIVs, have surged in the months since the US military left.
Scores of veterans and Afghans have gathered on Capitol Hill and across the country in what they call a “fire watch” — around-the-clock protests aimed at urging Congress to help Afghans living under a Special immigration to the US provisions have been evacuated but now face uncertainty as the time for these safeguards is running out.
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“There’s nothing in this report that we didn’t already know,” Matt Zeller, a US Army veteran and advisory board chair of the Association of Wartime Allies, told Military.com in an interview on Thursday. “Veterans and people paying attention have been saying that for the better part of the last year — not just for the better part of a year, but for the last decade.”
“The SIV program is fundamentally broken,” said Zeller, who has traveled the country with the so-called fire stations and spoken to politicians and communities about the problem.
Since the US withdrawal in August 2021 and the takeover by the militant Taliban, Afghanistan has experienced a breakneck economic crisis that has led to starvation and political instability, while the average Afghan ally worries about violent Taliban reprisals for supporting the US during of the war helped.
For Afghans and their advocates, this famine and instability are a tremendous source of fear, with Zeller adding that they will “kill far more than the Taliban can ever do at this time.”
Between October and May, the number of main Afghan SIV applications more than doubled, according to the State Department watchdog report. At the same time, analysis by Military.com earlier this year showed that visa approvals fell by a whopping 91% between fiscal quarters. According to the Inspector General, an estimated 322,000 Afghans are in the pipeline for special immigrant visas.
The State Department watchdog examined the agency’s handling of the growing backlog of applications and found that despite “minor” adjustments to the application process, shortcomings persist and the situation is not improving.
“These shortcomings have contributed to processing times for Afghan SIV applications exceeding the 9-month target set by Congress and have prevented potentially vulnerable Afghan allies from reaching safety in the United States,” the dated statement said Congress requested IG report.
The department filled a long-vacant position as a senior coordinating officer in the SIV processing office to address issues causing the backlog, but the officer is not adequately coordinating and overseeing the program’s fixes, the IG found.
The overall staffing of the program is also insufficient, the watchdog reported. In January, the Afghan SIV unit had only eight employees; By the summer, it had increased the number to 42 employees.
“However, the increase was not enough to address the existing backlog of applications while absorbing additional new applications,” says the report. Despite the increase in staff, the National Visa Center estimated last year that it would need 263 staff.
According to the report, the National Visa Center’s Afghan SIV email account contained more than 325,000 unread messages in May. IG reviewers found that staff were still opening unread emails from August 2021 — the month of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
A State Department spokesman who spoke about the background told Military.com via email that the department “continues to demonstrate its commitment to the brave Afghans who have stood shoulder to shoulder with the United States for the past two decades.”
But the spokesman also disputed the inspector general’s findings, saying many were “built on outdated information, failed to acknowledge previous efforts, made incorrect legal conclusions, or mischaracterized ongoing efforts.”
“Based on the department’s comments, some of the OIG’s recommendations were resolved before the report was even finalized,” the spokesman said.
The State Department said it had resumed SIV interviews and dramatically increased the number of staff responsible for the program, including staff who respond to SIV requests and review initial documents submitted.
Military.com asked the State Department if it agreed with IG’s estimate that 322,000 Afghans applied for the special visas and an updated count of Afghan SIV staff the ministry had hired, but received no response through publication.
The combination of backlog and uncertainty has left Afghans – and their veteran allies – in a perpetual state of urgency that have faced a wall of bureaucracy, exhausting both groups.
“Physically, mentally and spiritually, our community is tired,” Zeller said of veterans and Afghan allies. “We have suffered a serious moral injury over the past year.”
Zeller, who is also a co-founder of No One Left Behind, has been at the forefront of lobbying for Congress to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act — legislation that would secure a better footing for the thousands of Afghans who were evacuated to the US after the fall of Kabul.
The bill took a hit last month when it failed to be included in an unconditional congressional action to keep the government from shutting down. Proponents are now considering reconsidering the push in December, when two more must-pass bills will be on the table.
Zee, an Afghan who worked for US special forces and is still stuck in the country, agreed to speak under a pseudonym for fear of Taliban retaliation. He told Military.com that his years of trying to get an SIV doesn’t look any more promising than when he first applied in 2018.
“The State Department shouldn’t gamble with our lives and evacuate us as soon as possible,” he said, adding that the efforts of American supervisors he worked for in Afghanistan helped him keep hope alive. “They are the ones who always help me.”
Military.com confirmed Zee’s work with the US using documents he previously provided.
“I just breathe for a living and I can’t stay in one place,” he told Military.com via text message. “The Taliban [are still hostile] with the people who have worked with the US armed forces.”
Some Afghans who made it to the States through the SIV program are still struggling to make headway for their families an ocean away.
“Having family members in Afghanistan and [them] Being threatened daily by the Taliban gives you a lot of depression and worry,” Noor told Military.com in an interview. “But by and large, your family’s life is in the hands of the State Department.”
Noor successfully earned an SIV about a decade ago and enlisted in the US Army almost immediately after landing in the US, hoping to provide a better life for his family members – many of whom lived through the turbulent withdrawal, including the suicide bombing of the Kabul Gate Airport Abbey in which 13 US soldiers and an estimated 170 Afghans were killed.
Some of his most vulnerable relatives are still struggling with challenges in Afghanistan, despite the provisions he is granted as a US citizen. And other members of his family – who made it to the US – are still fighting the SIV system even after they arrived.
“It took a year for the State Department to get their paperwork and put everything together,” he said of his family’s current situation in Houston. “Imagine if you were outside of the United States where you have no contact with the State Department to drive this paperwork.”
Editor’s Note: The reporter who wrote this article made efforts to help Afghans after the fall of Kabul, including “Zee” who is quoted in this story. The reporter’s efforts were made prior to Zee’s statements in this story, which were not made under a quid pro quo agreement.
— Drew F. Lawrence can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @df_lawrence.
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