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Special Immigrant Visa Programs – Backgrounder

Since 2002, the United States has employed Afghans and Iraqis to serve alongside U.S. troops, diplomats, and aid workers in their countries. Regrettably, these allies and their families became the targets of violence due to their association with the U.S. mission, and many were threatened, abducted, wounded, or even killed because of their work. In response, Congress created three Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) programs to provide a pathway to resettlement in the United States for those local allies:

  • A small, permanent SIV program, also known as the 1059 SIV program, was established by the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2006. This SIV program provides no more than 50 visas per year to Afghan or Iraqi interpreters/translators with at least one year of employment and a recommendation from a general or flag officer.
  • The Iraqi SIV Program, created by Section 1244 of the FY 2008 NDAA, provided significantly greater numbers of visas for Iraqis with proof of at least one year of employment between March 20, 2003 and September 30, 2013 on behalf of the U.S. Government. It closed to new applications on September 30, 2014.
  • The Afghan SIV Program, established by Section 602 of the 2009 Afghan Allies Protection Act, is the largest of the three SIV programs. Eligible Afghan nationals must demonstrate that they:
    • were employed for at least two years by the U.S. government or a closely associated entity, as demonstrated by human resources records;
    • provided faithful and valuable service to the United States, as demonstrated by a personal recommendation from a U.S. citizen supervisor; and
    • face a serious, ongoing threat as a result of their employment.

From the beginning, these programs have maintained broad bipartisan support. However, while thousands of Iraqis and Afghans have been safely resettled to the United States through the SIV programs, implementation has been wrought with delays. Tens of thousands of U.S. allies seeking protection through the SIV program have faced extraordinary delays beyond congressionally-mandated timelines and arbitrary implementation of statutory requirements.

 

  • The Afghan SIV program continues to accept and process applications, but relies on regular authorizations of additional visas from Congress. Moreover, applicants face average processing times of three years — far beyond the Congressionally-mandated timeline of nine months — and many applicants have been waiting for even longer. The current backlog of applicants exceeds 18,000, with approximately 70,000 family members who would also be eligible to receive visas.
  • The Iraqi SIV program closed to new applications in 2014, and Iraqi allies seeking protection must now apply to the Direct Access Program for U.S.-Affiliated Iraqis, part of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. The Direct Access Program faces a backlog of more than 100,000 applications, with just 156 applicants admitted to the United States in fiscal year 2020.
  • The permanent 1059 SIV program continues to operate, but the extremely limited number of visas authorized each fiscal year is wholly inadequate to meet the number of Afghan and Iraqi translators in need of pathways to safety.

These processing delays have had dire consequences: according to a recent estimate, at least 1,000 Afghan and Iraqi interpreters have been killed while their visa applications were being adjudicated. Ensuring protection for Afghan allies, in particular, is even more urgent in light of the possible withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Prominent leaders of the U.S. military have expressed strong support for the program and warned of dire consequences to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan—and the ability of the United States to obtain assistance in future missions—if local employees are abandoned without a path to safety.

 

There are several concrete steps that the U.S. government can take to improve current and future SIV programs, which are detailed in a recent IRAP report. The State Department needs to implement agency-wide reforms to resolve bureaucratic errors, fix unnecessary delays, and increase transparency. The U.S. government should also take steps to allow for and expand remote processing, so that SIV adjudications can continue even when services in the embassies in Kabul or Baghdad are disrupted. Congress should continue to authorize at least 4,000 additional visas for Afghan nationals each fiscal year, provide oversight, and appropriate funding/resources to ensure that the State Department meets the nine-month processing timeframes, as required by statute, and establish a permanent SIV program for at-risk local employees regardless of nationality.

Many of these recommendations were echoed by the State Department’s own Inspector General, in a recent review of the Afghan SIV program. Such reforms are urgently needed, and as long the U.S. government relies on local assistance and expertise to implement its foreign policy, there will be a need to protect those locals who risk their lives on behalf of the United States.