The U.S. government has eased some of the stringent requirements Afghans have to navigate as they apply to resettle in the United States.
Until now, Afghans who held civilian positions under the Taliban regime or paid it for public services such as getting a passport, have been ineligible for a U.S. visa on the basis that they have ties to a terrorist group. The Biden administration says that is no longer the case.
"[T]he Secretary of Homeland Security and Secretary of State exercised their authority under the Immigration and Nationality Act to allow the U.S. government on a case-by-case basis to grant an exemption for otherwise qualified applicants for visas and certain other immigration benefits who would otherwise not qualify due to the statute's broad inadmissibility grounds," a State Department spokesman told VOA.
"This action will allow the U.S. government to meet the protection needs of qualifying Afghans who do not pose a national security or public safety risk and provide them with the ability to access a durable immigration status in the United States," the spokesperson said, adding that Afghans who worked as civil servants during the first Taliban reign in Afghanistan from September 1996 to December 2001, and after August 15, 2021, are eligible under the policy.
Since 2006, the U.S. government, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, has applied this exemption authority more than 30 times to protect U.S. allies against inadvertent terrorism-related blockings.
"Doctors, teachers, engineers, and other Afghans, including those who bravely and loyally supported U.S. forces on the ground in Afghanistan at great risk to their safety, should not be denied humanitarian protection and other immigration benefits due to their inescapable proximity to war or their work as civil servants," the State Department spokesperson said.
Some requirements unclear
Afghans who apply for admission to the U.S. through Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs), a program enacted by Congress in 2009, must submit, among other documents, a recommendation letter from a supervisor of a U.S. project in Afghanistan.
For years, applicants were asked to have a U.S. citizen verify and sign the letter of recommendation or have a U.S. citizen as a co-signer if the supervisor was a foreign national, according to International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), a U.S.-based nongovernment organization.
It remains unclear whether that requirement has been dropped. According to IRAP policy expert Adam Bates, although the State Department asks applicants for the signed letters, Congress never mandated that requirement.
"The statute governing the SIV program never contained this requirement in the first place; Congress never intended for Afghan allies to have their applications delayed or rejected for lack of a letter from a U.S. citizen," Bates told VOA.
The State Department, however, said applicants should still try to obtain such a letter and did not confirm that the requirement has been dropped entirely.
Applicants "should try to obtain this letter from a U.S. citizen supervisor who knows them personally, but if that is not possible, they should try to provide a letter of recommendation signed by a non-U.S. citizen supervisor and co-signed by the U.S. citizen responsible for the contract," the State Department spokesperson told VOA, quoting SIV application requirements guidelines.
IRAP says the requirement creates unwarranted obstacles and problems for applicants who, for various reasons, cannot find a U.S. citizen to sign or co-sign a recommendation letter, an increasingly onerous task since the August 2021 withdrawal of U.S. forces and personnel, particularly for Afghans who've been forced from their jobs or compelled to change contact information.
More visas needed
Since 2014, Congress has approved 34,500 principal visas for the Afghan SIV program, excluding visas issued for dependents, of which about 16,000 visas are left.
Evacuate Our Allies, a coalition of human rights and refugee organizations including IRAP, has called on Congress to approve 25,000 additional SIV visas for Afghans.
"It would be unconscionable for SIV-qualified Afghans who risked their lives on behalf of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan to check all the bureaucratic boxes and invest the years of their lives required to make it through the SIV process only for Congress to not authorize enough visas to ensure they have pathway to safety," Bates said.
Currently, there are at least 50,000 principal applications awaiting screening and approval.
"We are processing more initial applications than ever," the State Department spokesperson said.
The U.S. embassy in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, remains closed since August last year, but the State Department says it has increased staff in third-country embassies and consulates to enhance and expedite SIV applications.