More than 7,000 special visas allocated to Afghans by Congress in 2020 went unissued, compared with about 5,000 the year before, according to State Department data. Nearly 19,000 visa applications were stuck in processing as of September 2019, according to a State Department audit last year, a number that was all but guaranteed to grow with the coronavirus disruptions.
Created to support Afghans and Iraqis who came under threat for their work with the United States, the special visa programs have lengthy applications processes that have prolonged the average wait time to three years. And as they wait, Afghan applicants to the program are increasingly vulnerable: The Taliban and other militant groups view them as traitors, putting them in a perilous position as the Taliban expands its influence and as thousands of U.S. troops have withdrawn from Afghanistan.
Half a dozen special-visa applicants interviewed by The Washington Post this month said they believe their lives have been put at greater risk due to the processing delays last year. The program, called the Special Immigrant Visa, offers a fast track to U.S. citizenship and benefits such as housing assistance that other immigrants to the United States are not entitled to.
Advocates are expecting “a waterfall of delays” after interviews were halted for nearly a year, according to Deepa Alagesan, a senior attorney with the International Refugee Assistance Project, an advocacy group supporting program applicants.
“Because this is a multistep process . . . if one step is put on hold, it’s inevitable that a bulge will form at that point in the system,” Alagesan said. She and other refugee advocates believe the backlog created by the 2020 slowdown will be felt for years to come unless the Biden administration makes dramatic changes.
All Special Immigrant Visa applicants already hold some kind of security clearance that allows them to work closely with U.S. military or government personnel but are vetted again by multiple U.S. security and intelligence agencies. Applicants are also required to sit for multiple interviews and a rigorous medical examination. In all, 14 steps are required before an applicant and his or her immediate family is cleared to travel.
As security deteriorates in many parts of Afghanistan, that wait time is putting Afghan applicants at greater risk.
One applicant, a 37-year-old father of four who worked as an interpreter for the U.S. Army, said he began receiving death threats by phone in 2015. The former interpreter spoke on the condition that his name, current occupation and home province not be disclosed out of concerns for his safety.
The voice on the line would say, “We know who you are, that you are working for the enemy, and if we find you, we will kill you,” he recalled. The threats were enough to spur him to begin thinking about ways to keep his family safe. He applied to the Special Immigrant Visa program in 2017.
Over the past year, his situation has become increasingly desperate. The U.S. Army unit he once interpreted for, who nicknamed him “Tom Cruise” because of his willingness to go on any mission, withdrew from his province in early 2020, and since then the threats against him have become more intense.
Last month the former interpreter was summoned by the local branch of Afghanistan’s main intelligence agency.
“They said, we have some bad news for you and your family,” he recounted. The intelligence officers told him his name was on a list of former U.S. interpreters the Taliban wanted dead. They believed he was being followed by a Taliban informant in the provincial capital where he lives, he said.
“I thought of my family, my wife and children, and I just started crying,” he said.
For days, the former interpreter said he didn’t know what to do, and so he just stayed at home but eventually was forced to return to work. He said he expects to be killed at any moment.
Five other applicants to the program described a similar pattern of increased threats as visa processing was put on hold last year. Many say they also fear falling victim to targeted killings that are on the rise in parts of Afghanistan under government control for which officials, including the U.S. military command in Kabul, blame on the Taliban.
For many members of the U.S. defense and diplomatic community, protecting Afghans who supported the U.S. mission in Afghanistan is not only a moral imperative but also a national security concern.
Daniel Elkins, a Green Beret who served in Afghanistan and founded Special Operations Association of America, an organization that represents members of the Special Operations community, said he’s hearing from more former interpreters who worked with the U.S. military in Afghanistan asking for help.
“These interpreters risked their lives and their families’ lives by aiding the U.S. military,” Elkins said. “If we abandon our side of the commitment now, people in the future will be less willing to work with us.”
Sharif Hassan in Kabul contributed to this report.