Tens of thousands of Afghan nationals have risked their lives to help the US military in Afghanistan, many of them working as interpreters in the battle. Now, after the takeover of the Taliban, they are desperate to leave, but a passage to the United States may prove elusive.
More than 300,000 Afghan civilians have joined the US mission during its two-decade presence in the country, according to the International Rescue Committee, but a minority are eligible for refugee protection in the United States.
About 2,000 such people, whose cases had already been approved, arrived in the United States in July on evacuation flights from Kabul, the capital. While addressing the country on Monday, President Biden said there were plans to air more Afghan families in the coming days, though he did not provide details.
Refugee advocates said they feared thousands of vulnerable people would be left behind at their peril as militants tightened their grip on Afghanistan’s territory.
Who are the vulnerable allies?
Since 2002, the United States has employed Afghans to assist American troops, diplomats and aid workers. Many were threatened, kidnapped and assaulted, and an unknown number were murdered, as a result of their association with the United States. In response, Congress enacted special immigrant visa programs to give such workers a pathway to legal residence in the United States.
But the programs, which enjoy broad bipartisan support, have been marred by processing delays.
Who is eligible for visas?
Applicants must demonstrate that they have been employed by the U.S. government or an affiliated entity for at least two years. Among other things, they must prove that they have rendered valuable services by providing a recommendation from a US supervisor. They must also demonstrate that they have experienced or experienced a serious threat as a result of their work for the United States.
How many are waiting to come?
More than 15,000 Afghan citizens, plus family members, have already been resettled to the United States on special immigrant visas, out of a total of 34,500 authorized visas.
At least 18,000 people have applications pending and that number is expected to increase significantly given the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan.
Critics say the US government, which has rolled back several administrations, has delayed the approval of special immigrant visas by requiring an extraordinary amount of documentation as part of an impractical 14-step process.
Applicants have faced average wait times of three years, although Congress had indicated it would be no more than nine months. Many have been waiting for the outcome of their case for ten years.
Are they considered refugees?
Special immigrant visa recipients are eligible for the same resettlement benefits as refugees. They arrive with green cards and can apply for US citizenship after five years. But they are not classified as refugees, nor do they count towards the number of refugees the United States admits each year.
How will the Biden administration resolve the crisis?
Since July, the US government has evacuated about 2,000 interpreters and their families whose cases had already been cleared. They were taken from Kabul to the Fort Lee military base south of Richmond, Virginia, and many have since been sent to cities across the country. But after the last flight landed on Sunday, refugee resettlement workers were told that plans to evacuate more Afghans had been shelved.
Garry Reid, a civilian Pentagon official charged with handling the evacuations, said on Monday that 700 Afghan allies had been evacuated in the past 48 hours. He said the United States would scale up by receiving more departing Afghans at US military bases, but he did not offer a specific timeline.
The Biden administration had also negotiated with several countries in the Middle East and Central Asia to temporarily house a number of people until they can settle in the United States. But it wasn’t clear whether it would even be possible to evacuate more Afghan allies, at least for now, given the volatility on the ground.