For the two decades the US waged war in Afghanistan, hundreds of thousands of Afghans worked with American forces at great risk to themselves and their families. A small fraction of those translators, drivers and other workers were promised pathways to special visas to leave the country and relocate to the US in return for their service.
But now, after a hasty US military departure and an even faster takeover by the Taliban, thousands of applicants to these programs and other refugees find themselves in limbo with an unclear timeline on when their applications will be processed and serious questions about their safety while they wait.
Over the past week, scenes of people crowding the Kabul airport have aired all over the world as Afghans try to flee the country and Taliban fighters search for people they suspect of having helped the American military.
It’s a scenario some lawmakers in Congress had warned about for months. The Republican congressman Peter Meijer of Michigan called the backlog and delays “enraging”.
“This has been a program that across administrations had been slow rolled,” Meijer, a veteran who supported expanding the special immigrant visas (SIVs) for Afghans program earlier this year, told the Guardian.
“When you’re talking to people every night who are moving from house to house because they’re being followed by the Taliban, and … we’re in exactly the situation that several months ago that we thought we would be in … and you are ignored, it tends to be frustrating,” Meijer said, before correcting himself. “Enraging, enraging.”
Over 300,000 civilians in Afghanistan have worked with Americans during the US occupation of Afghanistan, according to the International Rescue Committee. Over 15,000 Afghans, plus their families, have already resettled in the US through the SIV program. Another 18,000 applications were pending, and that number is all but certain to balloon.
On Capitol Hill in recent days, members of Congress have set up email accounts and hotlines to answer calls from constituents and US veterans who are trying to help Afghan colleagues stuck in the country. Those lawmakers have reported a flood of new requests from SIV applicants or people trying to help them.
“Right now, in the current crisis, we have put through over 200 SIV requests. My office. That’s really just since the weekend,” said the Democratic congressman Gerry Connolly of Virginia.
Children passed over the walls of Kabul airport amid evacuation chaos – video
The frustration has been visible among the community of military veterans in Congress and outside of it. And the criticism directed at the Biden administration has been bipartisan.
“For months, I have been calling on the administration to evacuate our allies immediately – not to wait for paperwork, for shaky agreements with third countries, or for time to make it look more ‘orderly’,” the congressman Seth Moulton of Massachusetts said in a statement.
Defending the US withdrawal this week, Biden argued in a speech that the chaotic evacuation of Afghan civilians had partly been because some “did not want to leave earlier”. Moulton, a Democrat and Iraq war veteran, decried this as “utter BS”.
To qualify for an SIV, Afghan citizens must have either worked directly for US forces as a translator for 12 months, or been employed by the US government or International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) for two years between 2001 and 2021.
Still, the process for leaving the country for Afghans is full of bureaucracy. Meijer described how friends in the veterans community had taken time off work or were using every connection they could to try to help interpreters and their families.
“We have things like folks getting rejected because of polygraphs or medical exams or because of the length of the processing,” Meijer said. “We’ve already had people who are in this pipeline get killed. We need to move heaven and earth to get this done.”
Earlier this month, the state department said Afghans who did not qualify for SIVs but were at risk due to their US affiliation would be able to apply to the US refugee program, which is also tightly limited and experiencing huge backlogs.
Earlier this year a bipartisan group of lawmakers led by the Republican congressman Jason Crow of Colorado introduced legislation to streamline the SIV process and expand the slots available by 8,000.
In July, Congress passed legislation aimed at streamlining the relocation process, cutting out certain requirements for special immigrant visas (SIVs) meant to shrink the long delays in processing those applications.
A boy is processed through an evacuee control checkpoint during an evacuation in Kabul.
A boy is processed through an evacuee control checkpoint during an evacuation in Kabul. Photograph: USMC/UPI/Rex/Shutterstock
A small contingent of House Republicans who opposed expanding the SIV program have argued that the US should not let in any of the Afghan interpreters or refugees. That argument has been met with stiff rebukes.
“Anybody who understands the SIV program would have to agree that they should be allowed in,” Senator Thom Tillis, a Republican of North Carolina, said.
Connolly said: “I think that’s just consistent with their inhumane approach to life. America has always been a place of refuge in these kinds of circumstances.”
Connolly said now he wanted to see “us very liberally process and approve SIV requests and get people on airplanes as fast and expeditiously as possible”.
Congressional offices have resorted to trying to coordinate with the state department individually or with other offices to try to help stranded applicants. Senators Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, a Democrat, and Republican Joni Ernst of Iowa organized a bipartisan letter to send to Biden administration officials arguing that the SIV process needs to be recalibrated again and quickly.
Lawmakers say it is now dangerous to carry the US-affiliated paperwork needed at the Kabul airport to leave the country.
“I’m very worried about SIVs or even US nationals or dual nationals who are outside of Kabul and right now what should be a 20-minute ride to the airport took them an hour and a half when they attempted it yesterday,” said Tillis.
There have been a number of congressional briefings by government officials, including high-level meetings with congressional leadership, according to multiple aides with knowledge of those calls, with more coming. But lawmakers are still pessimistic that the US can make up for lost time.
“I’m frankly terrified of what we might see if we turn our backs on these folks now – of what that will do to our veterans community, of what that will do to civil-military relations,” Tillis said.
“This is not an issue that will go away and if President Biden thinks it will go away he’s only guaranteeing it will get far far worse.”
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