The Biden administration is expanding priority refugee access to Afghans who have worked with the U.S. government, the State Department said Monday, an acknowledgment of the perils facing those affiliated with the United States as the military withdraws.
About 200 interpreters and their families arrived at a military base in Virginia on Friday as part of a first wave of relocations under that program, the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) initiative. More are expected to be moved to the United States or to third countries while their applications are processed under a new initiative called Operation Allies Refugee.
Many Afghans who worked with the U.S. government say they are under increased threat as the Taliban continues to seize territory across the country, exploiting the vulnerabilities of local security forces and fueling fears of the central government’s collapse.
Since President Biden announced that he would fully withdraw U.S. military forces from Afghanistan by this fall, his administration has come under pressure from lawmakers and advocates to ensure the safety of those who assisted the United States over the past two decades, including drivers, aid workers and others.
“We take our responsibility to our Afghan partners deeply, seriously,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters at the State Department.
While there are about 20,000 Afghans at some stage of the SIV application process, officials said it was not yet clear how many Afghans, who must be referred by their employers, would be eligible to apply for refugee status under the expanded criteria.
The processing of applications, which includes extensive security vetting and can last at least a year, starts only after the individuals leave Afghanistan and reach a third country, officials said.
People seeking refugee admission under this program will not be airlifted out of Afghanistan by the U.S. government, at least initially, as many SIV applicants will be, and must arrange and finance their own travel.
Blinken acknowledged that requiring Afghans to undertake an onerous application process from outside their country, probably leaving local networks, homes and employment behind, could compound the obstacles facing many would-be refugees.
“This is, alas, the case for millions of people around the world who find themselves in very difficult situations, and particularly in Afghanistan now, especially a group of people who may have worked for us, worked for NGOs, media organizations, women and girls, and others who feel an acute sense of threat and fear for the future,” he said, using an acronym for nongovernmental organizations, or civil society groups.
“Our obligation, I believe, is in the first instance to make sure that we are making good on our commitments to those who, in particular, put themselves on the line, put their families on the line to help us,” he said.
The new “Priority 2” designation will include Afghans who worked directly for the U.S. government or for U.S. contractors but do not meet the SIV criteria; worked for programs funded by a U.S. grant or cooperative agreement, but not subcontractors; or worked for U.S.-based media or civil society groups.
Speaking later, State Department spokesman Ned Price said the United States would provide indirect support to Afghans during their application process, via funding to aid groups that work in the third countries where Afghans seek temporary refuge.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) applauded the move. “As we bring our troops home, it’s important not only to ensure the safety of Afghans who offered important assistance to our military but also to protect a broader set of Afghans who have helped further our goal of building democratic values in Afghanistan,” he said in a statement.
Advocates characterized the decision as a step in the right direction but also cautioned that it will be a challenge for the U.S. bureaucracy to quickly process so many applications.
“There are countless journalists, teachers, women’s rights activists, and other civil society leaders who believe deeply in the ideals we fought for, and whose lives are in jeopardy because of it,” Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, the head of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, said in a statement. “It is our moral duty to offer a pathway to protection for them, especially as the security situation rapidly deteriorates.”
While the Biden administration is hoping that the Afghan government can negotiate a power-sharing arrangement with the Taliban as part of a peace process launched under President Donald Trump, there are few signs the two sides can quickly find enough common ground to reach a deal.
Blinken said a second flight of SIV applicants arrived in the United States on Monday.