Challenges to Afghan special visa program remain two years after US withdrawal, State Dept. watchdog finds

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By todaybreakingnews.org




CNN
 — 

Numerous challenges to the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa program remain two years after the chaotic and deadly US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the State Department’s watchdog agency said in a new report released Thursday.

The Office of the Inspector General found that although the State Department made efforts to streamline processing of applicants beginning in February 2021, those efforts were not enough to address the backlog created in the wake of the surge in demand following the US withdrawal. Moreover, “without additional dedicated resources to address the situation, the backlog in SIV applications will remain a significant challenge,” the report said.

The SIV program faces additional challenges due to the lack of US presence on the ground in the Afghanistan, the OIG report found.

“The reliance on Taliban cooperation because of the lack of US diplomatic ground presence in Afghanistan impacts the ability for Afghan SIV applicants to exit Afghanistan and arrive at a US diplomatic post for visa processing,” the report said.

“Department officials told OIG that one of the biggest challenges to SIV applicants departing Afghanistan is the lack of freedom of movement out of Afghanistan, which is dependent on Taliban cooperation,” it continued. “Department Officials told OIG that the Taliban’s willingness to approve flights, to allow women to depart Afghanistan alone, to determine the number of aircraft Kabul International Airport can accommodate, and other factors impacted freedom of movement for Afghans.”

The report also said that the department “has not developed and implemented a strategic performance management approach” to resolve the backlog or pursuing strategies to improve the program. The OIG recommended that the department enact such an approach and the department “concurred with the intent of the recommendation,” the report said.

As of August 1, the US has “issued nearly 34,000 SIVs to principal applicants and their eligible family members,” a State Department spokesperson told CNN Thursday, noting that the number “represented substantial yearly increases from the previous several years.”

As of late March, close to 80,000 applicants were at other points in the review process with tens of thousands of others having begun applications, they said.

“The Department will continue to ensure Afghan SIV applications are processed as quickly as possible in accordance with the statutorily required program parameters and national security requirements,” the spokesperson said.

The Biden administration has come under immense scrutiny by lawmakers in both parties over its failure to evacuate SIV applicants and other vulnerable Afghans sooner. In October 2021, the State Department OIG informed Congress it was opening a number of reviews related to the US exit from Afghanistan, according to a letter from the acting inspector general obtained by CNN at the time.

In the days following the full US withdrawal in August 2021, a senior State Department official said that “the majority” of Afghans who worked for the US during its two-decade military campaign were likely left behind in the chaotic and rushed evacuation.

In late August 2021, Secretary of State Antony Blinken defended the State Department’s actions on the SIV program in the lead-up to the fall of Kabul, noting that a significant backlog that was already in place when the Biden administration took office.

“No interviews had been done when we came into office for visas for these for these folks going back to March 2020. Now largely that was due to COVID. We restarted the interview process,” Blinken said, also noting a surge in personnel in Washington, DC, and Kabul to help process applicants.

The OIG report released Thursday affirmed that the Covid-19 pandemic stalled SIV processing and created a large backlog. But although the State Department “took actions beginning in February 2021 to streamline Afghan SIV applicant processing and mitigate some processing issues,” as of December 2022, “these actions had not eliminated the significant and growing Afghan SIV applicant backlog,” the report found.

The report highlighted the initial growth of the Afghan SIV unit, which verifies whether an applicant for an SIV actually worked for the US government or a contractor “prior to making a recommendation for the (chief of mission) designee’s final approval or non-approval decision,” but found that it’s staffing level stagnated for over a year following the US withdrawal. The chief of mission approval is a key step in determining whether a visa gets issued.

From February through September 2021, the ASIV unit increased its head count from eight to 51 people, the report found.

However, the unit “did not increase its staffing level following the significant increase in applicant emails in August 2021,” the report said. “Specifically, the ASIV Unit maintained essentially the same staffing level for more than 15 months between August 2021 and November 2022, despite the significant increase in applications awaiting COM approval,” it said.

The report said that as of January 2023, the ASIV unit was attempting to hire around 100 personnel to help conduct employment verifications. According to a ASIV unit official, “Without the additional staff, processing all current applicants at the COM approval phase would take 3 to 5 years,” the report said.

As of March 31, about 9,800 SIV principal applicants had received COM approval and were awaiting further steps in the process ahead of receiving a visa, while approximately 69,000 were undergoing COM review, the State Department spokesperson said. “Historically, about 50 percent of applications reviewed at the COM stage do not qualify for the SIV program,” they noted.

“Additionally, tens of thousands of Afghans who expressed interest in the SIV program, have begun applications, but their eligibility for the SIV program cannot be assessed until the applicant has completed all the initial steps and submitted the required documentation for review,” the spokesperson added.

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