The Biden administration is pushing for a pathway to permanent U.S. residency for Afghan refugees as the number of visas granted to former interpreters and others who worked with the military dipped dramatically after the August withdrawal.
The drop-off in Afghan visa approvals has left tens of thousands of former allies in limbo after the Taliban takeover, as Americans now focus on the plight of Ukrainians caught in a new European war.
The number of special immigrant visas, or SIVs, granted to those Afghans fell from 1,292 in July through September to just 117 over the following three months -- a 91% drop, according to the latest figures released last month. The large decrease came as the number of remaining visa applications that the State Department has to process stays steady at about 16,500, which is likely only a fraction of the Afghans still awaiting a visa.
The White House sent a request to Congress on Friday for legislation giving Afghan refugees a path to legal permanent residence after being in the U.S. for a year, according to a White House spokesperson. Advocates say it could also ease the major backlog of visa applicants.
"This sends a message to our Afghan friends that they have not been forgotten," Shawn VanDiver, a Navy veteran and president of the #AfghanEvac coalition, said in a statement, adding that he hopes to see a "quiet passage" of the legislation, which he and other advocates call the Afghan Adjustment Act.
VanDiver told Military.com that he hopes to see Republicans and Democrats expand the proposal and negotiate final legislation that could "vastly improve the efficiency and effectiveness" of the current SIV system.
The new report on Afghan visa approvals covers the first quarter of fiscal 2022 after the country came under full control of the Taliban. Compared to the last quarter of 2021 -- the time period when the military was helping evacuate 124,000 from Afghanistan -- the new numbers show glacial progress. The report was jointly released by the State Department and Department of Homeland Security.
Additionally, the agencies found that the SIV processing time between the two quarters went from 435 days to 743 days -- nearly doubling -- while actual approvals dropped off. Afghan special immigrant visas are issued to those who served the U.S. government for at least one year during the war. Many Afghans eligible for the benefit were interpreters assigned to military units and served alongside U.S. troops.
The Association of Wartime Allies, a non-governmental organization, estimated that 78,000 SIV applicants "remain left behind" in Afghanistan in its February report.
"We continue, as much as possible, to expedite processing of SIV applications at all other stages of the process that can be performed remotely," according to a State Department spokesperson.
Many believe surging staff and resources for processing could be the solution. The State Department said it has hired an additional 58 National Visa Center officers for approvals.
"There are a lot of people who are in different stages of their application, and they're kind of losing hope," said Khalil Arab, an Afghan who successfully navigated the SIV process and is now living in Houston. "It's been over seven months since the Taliban took over, and there's hardly any window of opportunity for those guys."
Arab is working full-time as a program manager for Combined Arms SIVs and Allies, a nonprofit helping Afghans come to the U.S.
Others, such as VanDiver, say improvements must come from Congress as the request from the White House makes its way through Capitol Hill.
"Lawmakers all across this country need to hear from their constituents, and current and former members of the military," he said. "Speak really loudly. There's nothing wrong with an active-duty member or veteran or anybody that's reading this to pick up the phone, call their representative in their personal capacity and say, 'Hey, I believe in this, please do this.'"
Both the proposal to Congress and the SIV slog come as the Biden administration also announces plans to welcome another war-displaced population -- 100,000 Ukrainian refugees.
The administration's new efforts to accommodate Ukrainian refugees have left many Afghans and their allies feeling frustrated and forgotten.
"It seems like they are just delaying our cases," said Zee, an interpreter who agreed to speak with Military.com under a pseudonym. "All the people think over here is that they are left behind and that they are only taking Ukrainian refugees to the U.S."
Advocates, veterans and service members now want to remind Congress that Americans have a moral responsibility to Afghans in addition to the rightful focus on Ukraine.
Biden on Thursday asked Congress for $33 billion in aid to Ukraine. A brief section of the nearly 70-page request proposed allowing eligible Afghans a chance to apply for permanent residence.
The White House provision requests a "pathway to permanent residence to Afghan evacuees who came here through Operation Allies Welcome," the name for the military evacuation effort, according to a White House spokesperson, who said the full package was sent to Congress on Friday.
"What it does is it takes a group that is a little bit in limbo," said Jack McCain, a reserve naval aviator who flew alongside Afghan pilots in Afghanistan and son of the late Sen. John McCain, "and institutionalizes them as Americans."
The provision specifically requests policy changes that affect Afghans who have already been evacuated to the U.S., leaving some advocates to hope it can be expanded to those left behind inside Afghanistan after the evacuation and total military withdrawal.
The visa application process is particularly dangerous and complicated for those still outside the U.S.
The American embassy in Kabul closed eight months ago as the Taliban took over, and now Afghans must travel to an open embassy outside of Afghanistan to complete part of their visa application.
Zee said that he is living in fear from the Taliban and uncertainty about his SIV case, for which he originally applied in 2018. He was originally denied a visa due to a human resources error by the U.S. contractor who employed him.
"Things are getting strict here," he said. "[The Taliban] threaten reporters; all the coffee shops are closed, as well as other stuff like [preventing] barbers from shaving beards."
Still, he said he wanted to stay in Afghanistan until getting a visa. Money to move a family out of the country and to safety from the Taliban, especially without a guarantee of a green card from the U.S., was not a risk he could afford.
The State Department spokesperson acknowledged the "extremely difficult" circumstances for Afghans hoping to be granted an SIV, but had no ready solution for those who cannot make it to another country with a U.S. embassy.
"It's not feasible for most Afghans," said Matt Zeller, an Army veteran and co-founder of No One Left Behind, an SIV support organization, citing outrageous costs the Taliban have allegedly implemented for so-called exit visas allowing Afghans to travel to other countries.
"It's an insult to their circumstances to somehow tout this as a viable option," he said.
Editor's Note: The reporter who wrote this article has made efforts to assist Afghans after the fall of Kabul, to include "Zee" who is quoted in this story. The reporter's efforts were made prior to Zee's statements in this story, which were not given under any quid pro quo agreement.
-- Drew F. Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @df_lawrence.