IRAP shares and analyzes newly released Department of Defense (DoD) documents about Project Rabbit, a program developed by the DoD and Department of State (DOS) to streamline the employment verification process for Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applicants. IRAP obtained the documents through a FOIA request and related lawsuit and was represented by lawyers at Davis Wright Tremaine LLP. This document collection was reviewed and analyzed by students from IRAP’s experiential learning course at Yale Law School and IRAP staff.
The newly released documents shed light on the details of Project Rabbit. Very little public information exists about Project Rabbit, apart from a brief section on a Department of State (DOS) website. In the absence of public information, there has been ongoing confusion about how the program operates and whether it continues to exist.
This blog analyzes and highlights portions of the newly released documents while providing (1) brief context on the problems that led to Project Rabbit’s creation; (2) a timeline of key events relating to Project Rabbit; and (3) takeaways and recommendations to improve Project Rabbit. This blog does not contain recommendations or legal information for applicants about navigating the SIV process–please see IRAP’s SIV guides on our legal information website for recommendations on the SIV process, and our guide on employment letters for information about Project Rabbit. Legal practitioners assisting Afghans can also review our resources here.
The documents suggest a number of problems with Project Rabbit. Since it began only weeks before the end of the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, Project Rabbit was staffed by a small number of individuals. Project Rabbit staff could not require unwilling companies to provide employee data, and there was no public way for willing companies that were not already in contact with Project Rabbit staff to reach Project Rabbit. Ultimately, the newly released statistics show that as time went on fewer and fewer cases were matched through Project Rabbit, despite a tremendously large backlog of SIV applicants.
The full set of twenty-five documents is available immediately below and the detailed analysis follows.
Background – “One of the Most Burdensome” Steps of the Afghan SIV Process
Congress created the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program to provide a pathway to safety for Afghans who have worked with the United States mission in Afghanistan. The Afghan SIV program requires applicants go through a multi-step process that normally begins with applicants gathering multiple letters about their work from their employer and a former supervisor or more senior official. Almost from the SIV program’s inception, the process was criticized as “opaque, prohibitively complicated and painfully slow.” A 2014 Congressional Research Service report notes how the Department of Homeland Security blamed delays on “difficulties obtaining a recommendation from a supervisor and a copy of the work contract” while the Department of State (DOS) blamed delays on applicants not submitting required documents. Nearly a decade later, the DOS’s own Inspector General highlighted the employment verification process and letter requirements as difficult and time consuming. In the newly released documents, Project Rabbit was meant to address these challenges and relieve “one of most burdensome portions of the [SIV] process.”
Project Rabbit: A Timeline
Despite over a decade of issues and challenges with the employment verification process, documents show that it was only at the eleventh hour, less than three months before the U.S. withdrawal was completed, that DOS made the formal request that led to Project Rabbit.
June-July 2021 – A Request for Help
In the weeks leading up to the Biden Administration pulling out of Afghanistan, DoD was asked to formally aid with employment verification for SIV applicants in the pre-COM portion of the SIV process.
Documents suggest that the team ultimately leading Project Rabbit, from the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, along with the Defense Digital Service, eventually received a request in late July 2021 and began work after that, in August 2021.
August 2021 – Project Rabbit Begins
Although DOS asked DoD for help with employment verification, documents show that DoD was not immediately in a position to directly assist because DoD did not have any employment records for contractor or subcontractor employees:
On August 19, 2021, four days after the Taliban took control of Kabul, the DoD sent a letter to “Industrial Base Partners” explaining “we need your help to verify employment information” for Afghan SIV applicants. The letter contains a list of companies identified as employers by Afghan SIV applicants:
The next day, DoD, DOS, and USAID presented at a “Industry Engagement” to ask companies to provide employment information. The presentation contains a list of some of the contractors where DoD already has an HR point-of-contact:
DoD needed to engage with companies both because it never kept any employment data for contractors, but as it explained to DOS, there is “no legal or contractual requirement” for companies to provide the data.
September – December 2021 – A Fast Start for Project Rabbit
Initially, despite the reliance on voluntary requests to a subset of companies, Project Rabbit led to a significant number of matches in the first six months of operation. Within weeks, on September 9, 2021, the Project Rabbit team reported in internal communications to have matched 948 cases to the State Department:
By December 2021, DoD presented to top SIV applicant companies that the Project Rabbit Team had matched nearly 4,600 pre-COM SIV applicants.
In the presentation DoD created a visual explaining how the Project Rabbit process was supposed to work, with DOS sending cases to DoD, DoD contacting employers, employers matching applicants with HR data, and matched cases flowing back to DOS:
DoD also created a template letter from a DoD senior official that fulfilled the statutory requirements of the SIV program and allowing applicants to proceed without the obtaining letters from individual supervisors or HR units–a key improvement for applicants identified by Project Rabbit that is not generally available to other applicants:
2021 – 2022 – Staffing Issues and “no Dedicated Resources”
Despite the initial matching of thousands of applicants, released emails show that only a few weeks after it was started, Project Rabbit reported that employment submissions were “slowing down” and the transition lead requested volunteers for a “last big push:”
Notes that appear to be part of a February 2022 meeting between DoD and DOS state that “there are no dedicated resources within A&S to support employment verification efforts,” with only two government personnel assigned to Project Rabbit as an “additional duty” alongside two contractors:
A talking points document for the DoD – DOS February 2022 meeting contains several points acknowledging how Project Rabbit’s staffing and system were insufficient to meet the need. DoD refers to the current system as “not scalable or sustainable.”
A background section for the document explains that the DoD’s team could process only 100 cases / week, and that given the backlog of 30,000, it would take six years to process current cases. Statistics highlighted further below show that by October 2022, the backlog of pre-COM cases would rise to 126,000.
In the February 2022 meeting, DoD proposed transferring primary responsibility for Project Rabbit to DOS and made other suggestions for improvements, including an electronic portal. The produced documents do not confirm whether the improvements were implemented, but the statistics discussed below show the successful matches plummeted after the first six months.
In spite of DoD’s acknowledgement that it would take over six years to get through the backlog at current rates, DoD appears to have maintained a limited contractor staff of around two full-time contractors. The FOIA productions include a one-year contract awarded to rMantras Solutions, Inc. in June 2022 to support the Project Rabbit. Workload data hours are generally consistent with the same staffing level that DoD flagged in February 2022, where DoD would need years to process the backlog of cases (with P-1/P-2 responsibilities being separate from SIV responsibilities).
In the documents and on their websites, DoD and DOS currently do not list any way for DoD contractors who are not already in touch with Project Rabbit staff to reach Project Rabbit to participate. However, the DoD’s contract lists “SAM.gov, internet searches, contract document reviews, and other forms of media searching” as ways that the contractors on Project Rabbit may locate and solicit DoD contractors to be onboarded to the Rabbit Portal
The FOIA productions contain a newly public mandatory report to Congress, prepared in June 2022, on a DoD contractor database–the Synchronized Predeployment and Operational Tracker (SPOT). In that report, DoD both claims Project Rabbit as an “improvement” in the process for Afghan SIV applicants but notes that it was initiated by a “small team” and ultimately is a “limited employment verification solution for the Afghan SIV process.”
In the report, DoD does not note why only a small team was staffed on Project Rabbit or whether more applicants could be helped now, which is notable given that the “recommended long-term SIV employment verification solution” would only be able to serve “future SIV programs.”
2022-2023 Plummeting Case Matches through Project Rabbit
The FOIA productions contain newly released statistics bearing out DoD’s troubling predictions from February 2022. Statistics show how many cases were processed through Project Rabbit since its inception per “tranche” of applicants. Nearly 80 percent of cases (5113) were matched in the first six months of operation, from August 2021 to February 2022. Since February 2023, Project Rabbit matched only 1396 cases:
For context, other statistics in the FOIA production show a backlog of 126,673 pre-COM and at COM SIV applicants as of October 2022. The total cases matched by Project Rabbit between March 2023 and January 2023 (1396) are just over 1% of this total:
Takeaways and Recommendations
The newly published government documents shed light on the shortcomings and missed potential of Project Rabbit. Despite concerns about the burden of the employment verification process for applicants dating back over a decade to the Iraqi SIV program, the government waited until weeks before the evacuation to begin Project Rabbit as a potential alternative for one of the largest SIV applicant populations–DoD contractor employees. However, the newly released documents show that the project has only served a small fraction of applicants in the pipeline, and the speed of processing and approval has slowed. Concerns raised within DoD about sufficient staffing and inability to require companies to send documents, as well as the choice to wall off the small staff from public requests, likely contributed to the declining numbers. Although the newly released documents suggest possible solutions, such as an automated portal or transfer of ownership to DOS, it remains unclear if any of these solutions were acted upon.
Moving forward, it’s clear that more needs to be done to address the shortcomings of Project Rabbit. Some initial recommendations based on the newly released documents include:
- Allocate more staff and resources to Project Rabbit: The statistics included in the published documents show that the current staff and funding for Project Rabbit are not sufficient to keep up with the volume of SIV applications; DoD officials themselves noted that it could take 6 years to review cases at their current rate, and the newly released documents and statistics do not show show needed improvements in staffing or efficiency.
- Create a public way for SIV-applicant employing companies to reach Project Rabbit: The current walled-off structure of Project Rabbit makes it difficult for outside companies to access the system or reach its small staff. Creating a public way for companies (particularly smaller companies) to reach Project Rabbit could help more applicants.
- Develop other ways to incentivize or require companies to provide employment data: The documents show that DoD requested that some larger companies voluntarily participate in Project Rabbit, but there is currently no legal obligation for DoD contractors to participate in the SIV program or provide employee data. DoD should develop additional carrots or sticks for companies with current or future DoD contracts, and Congress should consider legislative options.
- Increase flexibility in the current SIV program around requiring letters of recommendation: One of the major delays in the SIV process is obtaining letters of recommendation from supervisors. Project Rabbit developed a template letter for “senior” officials in line with statutory requirements, but other SIV applicants generally have not been allowed similar flexibility. DOS should allow all applicants to submit letters from senior officials in lieu of direct supervisors, which would help alleviate some aspects of the “most burdensome part” of the SIV process.
The full collection of records from Project Rabbit is available here.
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