Updated: Aug 23, 2021
As the United States withdraws from Afghanistan and Afghans attempt to flee the Taliban, the chaotic scenes at Kabul airport focus on what the United States can do to assist their Afghan allies in leaving.
Much discussion has centered on the SIV (Special Immigrant Visa) program. Congress created this program in 2009 to support Afghan translators and others who had worked with U.S. forces during the 20 years of U.S. involvement in their country. However, President Biden also has other options. For example, the Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1962 means the executive can act on its own authority to relocate people in a crisis. This ruling has previously allowed refugees from Vietnam, Kosovo, and Iraq to relocate to the United States.
The current SIV program expands AAPA (the Afghan Allies Protection Act) passed by Congress in 2009. AAPA authorized 1500 visas every year for Afghan nationals who provided valuable services to the United States government and their allies and who are under severe and ongoing threat as a result of their employment with the U.S. government.
Special Immigrant Visas are available to those who have worked on behalf of the U.S. governments in Afghanistan as interpreters, translators, and in other professional roles. The SIV program has long been criticized for lengthy delays, with many applications taking up to three years to be processed. However, the U.S. Departments of State and Defense have pledged to speed up the current evacuation to a maximum of 900 eligible individuals per day.
The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the backlog of SIV applications. In July this year, Congress signed into law the Shaheen-Ernst Bill, aimed at providing additional support to their Afghan allies. The number of authorized visas is increased by 8000 a year. The bill also modifies existing requirements for SIV applicants, reducing the employment rule for two years to one, postponing the medical exam until after arrival in the U.S. There is no longer a “sensitive and trusted” requirement, and SIV status may also be granted to surviving spouses and children of applicants killed while waiting for their SIV to be approved.
Afghan citizens who have helped the U.S. but who do not qualify for a Special Immigrant Visa because they do not meet the minimum time in service requirement, for example, can be designated as P2 (Priority 2). But they must first find a way out of Afghanistan by themselves, as they can only be processed as refugees once they are in another country. At present, the U.S. is not offering flights to P2 applicants.
Individuals can be granted parole status, which allows them to enter the U.S. on an emergency basis without their immigration status being formally approved. Past administrations have used parole to bring in specific groups of refugees from Haiti and Cuba, Central America, and the Soviet Union.
Another alternative would be to allow more Afghan citizens to enter the U.S. via USRAP, the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. To achieve this would require a dramatic expansion of the quota of the refugee admission quota. The United States would also need to deal with significant processing backlogs.
USRAP would allow the United States to categorize specific groups of Afghan citizens as priority groups to protect them on humanitarian grounds. However, the large number of refugees involved makes it likely that such an initiative would face bureaucratic challenges.
These alternatives show that President Biden’s administration could implement options that would allow Afghans to bypass the backlog difficulties and bureaucracy of the SIV program. A parole program would also avoid the strict initial review for individuals fleeing an immediate threat of death. All the options mentioned above grant individuals temporary leave to remain in the U.S. before being awarded immigration status. The government can employ the parole system and bypass the
The United States started its withdrawal from Afghanistan without sufficient infrastructure in place to protect those Afghan citizens who had worked for them and who would be immediately affected by the crisis. Legally, there are several alternative ways of expanding capacity to get more Afghans out. And as the situation in Afghanistan continues to deteriorate, the United States needs to assess the range of options and implement the most practical solutions to protect the lives of its allies.