Special visa program for US-affiliated Afghans faces demise

By Jonathan Landay

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -A program that resettles in the United States Afghans who worked with the U.S. government could grind to a halt later this year, stranding tens of thousands at risk of Taliban retribution following the 2021 U.S. troop pullout from Afghanistan.

The congressionally-authorized limit of 38,500 Special Immigration Visas (SIVs), which offer a path to U.S. citizenship, is expected to be reached sometime around the August anniversary of the withdrawal, and it looks unlikely that the divided U.S. Congress will approve a Biden administration request for 20,000 more.

"We have somewhere around 8,000 (SIVs) left," State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told a briefing. "We have urged Congress to raise the cap and allow us to meet our obligation to those Afghans who put their lives on the line for the United States."

Once the remaining SIVs are issued, more than 10,000 applicants and their families cleared for final vetting and interviews outside Afghanistan would be unable to begin new lives in the United States, said a State Department official who requested anonymity.

Tens of thousands of other Afghan applications that have not reached that stage also are awaiting processing.

A failure to raise the SIV cap would be a “moral tragic travesty and national security failure” on the part of Congress, said Jason Crow, a Democrat and Army veteran who served in Afghanistan and is leading efforts in the House of Representatives to raise the limit.

The program’s potential end comes amid an immigration backlash fueled by former President Donald Trump, the expected Republican presidential nominee, and United Nations reports that the Taliban have killed, arrested and tortured hundreds of former officials and soldiers since the Islamists seized Kabul.

The Taliban, who issued a general amnesty for officials and troops of the former U.S.-backed government, deny the U.N.'s charges.

130,000 APPLICATIONS STILL UNPROCESSED

The administration proposal is caught in the infighting over financing the government through September, with no agreement to include it.

Shawn VanDiver, president of #AfghanEvac, the main coalition of volunteer and veterans groups helping to resettle at-risk Afghans, said House Speaker Mike Johnson was blocking the proposal and "unilaterally preventing tens of thousands of eligible Afghans from accessing their American dream."

Johnson's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Even 20,000 more visas, however, “would not be enough to finish the job," said VanDiver.

He pointed to a State Department report in September that some 130,000 full or partial applications were awaiting processing. That number did not include applicants’ families, who are not covered by the SIV cap and average more than four members each.

“We have an obligation to the tens of thousands of Afghans who stood with us through 20 years of battle,” said Rep. Brad Wenstrup, a Republican who served in Iraq.

He co-sponsored a bill with Crow last year to add 20,000 visas to the SIV cap and extend the program through 2029.

Since 2014, the program has been extended and the cap raised by Congress almost annually, although application processing slowed significantly under Trump’s administration, leaving a massive backlog.

Congress set the current cap of 38,500 visas in 2022. But while the Democratic-run Senate last year approved raising the ceiling and extending the program, House Republicans balked.

Meanwhile, SIV processing has accelerated significantly following steps taken by the Biden administration or mandated by Congress that streamlined the application process.

Between September 2021 and last month, the State Department issued some 39,100 SIVs, the State Department official said.

“We’re … kind of a victim of our own success,” Crow said of the increased approval rate.

Still, a congressionally mandated nine-month SIV application processing rate is not being met, said Adam Bates of the International Refugee Assistance Project.

“It would be unconscionable for this group of people to ... get caught up in this partisan morass,” he said.

(Reporting by Jonathan LandayEditing by Don Durfee and Deepa Babington)