The Afghan people are suffering today from both the Taliban’s repressive rule and international economic penalties imposed on their nation. The United States can help Afghans by reducing the penalties on Afghanistan, as well as by giving refugees fleeing Taliban rule a safe haven within its borders.
Various legal routes to refuge are theoretically available to Afghans. In 2009, the US Congress created a special immigrant visa (SIV) program for Afghans who had worked with US forces in Afghanistan, as translators or in other roles, to become legal permanent residents of the United States. The SIV program is particularly important because people who worked with the United States are now at heightened risk of reprisals from the Taliban.
Another route, created by the Biden administration shortly before the Taliban takeover, is a program that issues what are known as P-1 and P-2 visas to Afghans whose work might place them at risk from the Taliban even if they did not work with US forces. Journalists or aid workers, for example, might be eligible for P-1 and P-2 visas.
Yet another option is for Afghans to apply for “humanitarian parole,” which allows them to stay temporarily in the United States. Humanitarian parole does not provide a long-term solution to Afghans’ need for refuge, but it at least brings them to America.
Afghans pursuing these legal routes fall into two general categories: those already in the United States who need permission to stay here permanently, and those living in Afghanistan or third countries. Afghans in both categories face challenges.
Afghans in America
Roughly 80,000 Afghans evacuated during the US withdrawal from Afghanistan live in America today. Their immigration status varies, but most are allowed to stay under humanitarian parole.
A bipartisan bill in Congress, the Afghan Adjustment Act, would create a process for permanent residency for these refugees. Despite first being introduced in 2022 and again this year, however, the bill has yet to pass. Meanwhile, the Biden administration has announced a process for refugees to extend their parole for another two years.
Afghans outside America
Roughly 150,000 Afghans have applied to the SIV program and about 27,000 more have applied for P-1 and P-2 visas. These numbers do not include applicants’ family members, who number in the tens of thousands. The State Department has estimated that over 840,000 SIV applicants and their families remain in Afghanistan.
The SIV program involves formidable bureaucratic hurdles, especially for applicants in Afghanistan. Applying requires access to the internet and documentation of past employment by the US government. The process involves an interview at a US embassy, which requires traveling from Afghanistan to a country where the US has a diplomatic presence. Passports are expensive and difficult to obtain. The whole process, under ideal circumstances, takes more than two years. Throughout, applicants must evade detection by the Taliban as former US employees.
Afghans outside Afghanistan also face long, complicated procedures. Refugees are vulnerable to deportation if their visas run out before they are approved to go to the United States. Thousands of refugees are also reportedly stuck at processing sites in Europe and the Middle East. Conditions in at least one site have been criticized as inhumane. Advocacy groups have sued US government agencies to gain more information about the processing sites and the refugees held there.
Amid this bureaucratic and humanitarian morass, progress is slow. Since 2021, the State Department has issued only 34,000 visas under the SIV program. Of 66,000 Afghan applications for humanitarian parole made since summer 2021, fewer than 8,000 had been processed and only 123 approved a year later.
Actions to Take
The United States should help Afghans seeking a haven. Congress should pass the Afghan Adjustment Act. President Biden should issue an executive order allowing SIV applicants, both in Afghanistan and third countries, who have passed their initial screening to complete the visa process in the United States.
The Biden administration should increase funding and staffing of the offices within the Departments of State and Homeland Security that handle SIV, P-1 and P-2 visas, and parole. Such steps would help to process Afghan applications faster. The administration should provide full information about processing sites abroad and the refugees held there.
The administration should also consider negotiating with the Taliban to re-establish a diplomatic presence in Afghanistan. This step would certainly help Afghans applying for US programs.
Please consider contacting the Biden administration by phone, at 202-456-1111, or via email. Consider contacting your representatives in the House and Senate to urge passage of the Afghan Adjustment Act.
Those interested in supporting a private group dedicated to helping Afghan refugees may wish to investigate No One Left Behind.
The US war in Afghanistan is over, but the Afghan people continue to suffer. The United States owes Afghans a safe haven.