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Afghan visa program falls short of promises, senator’s review finds

New Hampshire Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen says Democrats and Republicans agree on the need to reform the program

The Afghan special immigrant visa program “has not lived up to the promise we made to participants” and requires policy changes to meet its full potential, according to a review of the program released Thursday by New Hampshire Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen.

The SIV program, which provides a safe haven in the United States for Afghans who assisted the U.S. military and diplomatic mission in Afghanistan, came under fire in 2021 when tens of thousands of Afghans attempted to flee the Taliban-controlled country.

Although roughly 80,000 people were evacuated and brought to the United States, many more were left stranded in Afghanistan or third countries and have sought protection from there.

“We’ve made important strides to improve the program, but as my special report details, we have much further to go,” Shaheen said. “Democrats and Republicans agree on the need to reform the program, but we need concrete steps on precisely how to do that.”

The SIV program has faced increasingly steep backlogs since 2014, an issue that contributed to the chaotic evacuation last year when the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan.

Since that withdrawal, reprisal attacks from the Taliban against Afghans “rose significantly,” according to the report. As of Aug. 9, 90,392 people have applied for SIVs.

Despite a statutory requirement that the government process applications in less than nine months, wait times often stretch for years.

Shaheen’s report found that a lack of cooperation from the executive branch has “systematically undercut” the program, citing inadequate staffing and an insufficient appeals process for denials, among a host of other issues.

The need for Congress to reauthorize the program annually has also contributed to delays, as lawmakers opposing the program have had regular opportunities to constrain it by adding more requirements. To get an SIV, applicants must complete a labyrinthine 14-step process that includes “chief of mission” approval, interviews, background checks and a medical exam.

“Slow and incomplete implementation of the program has resulted in a prolonged application process and confusion for applicants,” the report said.

Shaheen, who worked with the late Arizona GOP Sen. John McCain on the SIV program and remains one of its staunchest advocates, released three main recommendations for improving the program.

She urged the administration to develop a strategy for processing SIVs more efficiently, bulk out executive branch staff involved in managing the program, clarify employment eligibility and make consular processing of visas more flexible.

She also encouraged Congress to eliminate annual visa authorizations, instead greenlighting a one-time increase in the visa cap that would be extended through 2028.

“I hope lawmakers will review the findings from this report, and I welcome their support and assistance to implement these changes so we can keep our collective promise to our Afghan allies,” Shaheen said.

The report comes as Congress mulls a legislative proposal allowing Afghan evacuees who entered the United States last year under humanitarian parole to adjust their statuses to lawful permanent residency. If enacted, the measure could provide certainty to Afghans who may qualify for the SIV program but would need to wait years to obtain a visa.

The White House asked Congress to include the proposal in a short-term stopgap spending bill expected to pass next week. The measure has a handful of Republican co-sponsors, but it may face an upward climb to be included in a spending bill that lawmakers want to be as “clean” as possible.

The report also follows the Biden administration’s announcement earlier this month that it would refocus its efforts to resettle vulnerable Afghans in the United States, emphasizing existing immigration pathways, including SIVs, in a new long-term operation dubbed “Operation Enduring Welcome.”