How to Save Thousands of Afghan Allies
A now public letter led by Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) asks Secretary of State Antony Blinken to do more for Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applicants, many of whom are left behind in Afghanistan although they risked their lives for the United States. The letter proposes offering categorical parole to SIV applicants who have reached a certain stage in the bureaucratic process. How could this policy be feasibly implemented?
More than 74,000 Afghan citizens are hiding from the Taliban, and are being hunted for having worked for the U.S. government during the country’s nearly 20-year involvement there. At least 50,000 Afghan allies have cleared the most onerous U.S. visa requirements but remain stuck in Afghanistan, awaiting administrative processing that could take years under the State Department’s current system. The Biden administration could provide categorical parole to those who have already passed the major screening requirements and allow these Afghans to come to the United States and finish their processing in safety.
In 2009, Congress created the SIV program to provide a safe path to U.S. lawful permanent resident status for Afghans who worked with U.S. forces as interpreters, translators, and other roles over 20 years of war in Afghanistan, and are now under serious threat because of that employment. The program is deeply troubled by insufficient staffing, as well as SIV database and management issues. However, even if these issues are fixed, prominent obstacles remain. For example, SIV applicants must be interviewed at a U.S. embassy prior to obtaining their visas. This poses a major problem for Afghan people, as the United States shut down its embassy in Kabul last summer, making it impossible for SIV applicants to complete the visa process within Afghanistan.
During the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Biden administration evacuated tens of thousands of fleeing Afghans on U.S.-organized flights and needed a way to expedite entry of these vulnerable Afghans to the United States. In August and September 2022, 76,000 Afghans from the U.S-organized flights were issued immigration parole at their U.S. port of entry, which permitted their entry into the United States for two years while they work to determine their final immigration status. While those evacuated on U.S.-organized flights include 3,529 legal permanent residents, 3,290 SIV holders, and others in the process of applying for SIV or other statuses, many others do not qualify for any type of U.S. visa and are in the process of applying for asylum. The rest of the SIV applicants were left behind in Afghanistan. Since the withdrawal, only a trickle of SIV applicants have made it out of Afghanistan and into other countries, where they await U.S. visa approval.
Categorical parole allows a specific category of people to travel via any means available to the United States and complete their processing here. If the Biden administration grants categorical parole for SIV applicants who have already met crucial screening requirements, tens of thousands of Afghans could flee Taliban persecution and be free to seek refuge in the United States while they finish the onerous visa finalization process.
The SIV application process entails several steps, the first and most significant of which is approval by the chief of mission (COM), who is the official in charge of the U.S. diplomatic mission to Afghanistan. To gain COM approval, an applicant must provide proof of employment by the U.S. government or International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), along with a letter of recommendation from a government supervisor and proof that a serious threat exists due to their former employment. Once these materials are submitted, officials review the package and conduct a background check to ensure the applicant’s record is clear of any derogatory information. If everything is in order, the applicant will be granted COM approval and the ability to move forward in the visa process.
In January 2023, the State Department released a report on SIV processing throughput from July 1 to Sept. 30, 2022, which indicated that COM approval for applications took an average of 362 days from initial submission (an increase from the previous quarter). At the current rate, it would take the U.S. government years to process the roughly 60,000 SIV applications still awaiting COM approval. Meanwhile, a number of private volunteer organizations, such as the nonprofit No One Left Behind, are flying SIV recipients—who have somehow escaped Afghanistan and finished their SIV processing in another country—to the United States one family at a time. But for the applicants and family members still fighting to stay one step ahead of the Taliban in Afghanistan, each day of waiting could be one day too late.
The Biden administration should authorize categorical parole into the United States for Afghan SIV applicants who have received COM approval. Categorical parole programs (also referred to as special parole programs) are designed to parole an entire group of individuals based on preset criteria, in response to specific circumstances. Authorizing such a program for COM-approved SIV applicants will allow those eligible to be evacuated to the United States by the U.S. government or private airlines, which would drastically speed up the evacuation process. Additionally, those paroled would be able to seek safety in the United States, while also finishing up the administrative processing needed to officially receive SIV status.
Congress has delegated broad, discretionary parole authority to the executive branch under 8 U.S.C. § 1182(d)(5) of the Immigration and Naturalization Act, granting the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security the authority to create a parole program for COM-approved SIV applicants. The administration could authorize the creation of such a categorical parole program through an executive order that would allow COM-approved SIV applicants still in Afghanistan, or in a third country, to be paroled into the United States for four years. Allowing SIV applicants to come from any location, and by private means, is necessary as they are currently stranded in Afghanistan and a range of other countries around the world, and U.S. government flights out of Afghanistan have been inconsistent and unable to scale. The four-year period will ensure SIV applicants have the time to officially receive their SIV, even with the extensive backlog in processing. The secretary of homeland security could simply implement a categorical parole executive order with a policy memorandum.
A new executive order could also update Executive Order 14013, issued in February 2021, which ordered a review of the challenges to the Afghan SIV program. The current crisis in Afghanistan, along with a defunct U.S. embassy in the country, makes much of the executive order obsolete. Updating the executive order to address the current challenges to the program may finally help fix the systematic problems that have plagued the SIV program since its creation. Additionally, an executive order could ensure better coordination across multiple interagency stakeholders, including the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State, which oversee parole and lead Afghan SIV evacuation efforts, respectively.
The use of parole in similar circumstances has significant precedent. In 1956, President Eisenhower granted parole to 15,000 Hungarian nationals amid the Soviet crackdown in Hungary, where thousands were killed before they could find asylum in the West. During the 1960s and 1970s, large numbers of individuals from Cuba, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos—whom the United States considered to be refugees—were paroled into the country. And the Clinton administration granted parole to 6,000 Iraqi Kurds in 1996 after Saddam Hussein threatened those who had assisted the United States during the Gulf War.
In August 2021, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas released a policy memorandum providing port parole for certain Afghans who travel through Operation Allied Refuge official channels. This policy was used successfully for those who were evacuated from Afghanistan in August, but limited U.S. government flights constrain its future use. Official flights are taking only a narrow subset of people—which does not even include all COM-approved SIV applicants—due to processing limitations. Other limitations, including the fact that there are only two flights a week to Qatar on Ariana Afghan Airlines (the Taliban-owned airline that the U.S. government must use to fly out Afghans), as well as closures at the single processing location, have prevented the U.S. government from scaling official flights to the level that would be required to move large populations in a short period of time. The United States has a long history of protecting and providing for those who served alongside its military or who were targeted for their opposition to governments hostile to the U.S. The current crisis facing SIVs in Afghanistan is the exact type of scenario envisioned for parole.
By limiting parole to COM-approved SIV applicants, the risk of disapproval—and therefore the challenge of resettling people in the United States who are ineligible for visas or present security concerns—is significantly reduced. SIV applicants who have COM approval have already undergone security vetting and eligibility validation by the Department of State. In order to receive COM approval, an individual must provide extensive details on their work for the U.S. government or ISAF, and the Department of State verifies the individual’s letter of reference and employment record, ensures no derogatory information exists, and assesses the threat against the individual. To be eligible, individuals must prove they faced, or are still facing, a serious threat specifically because of their service to the United States. This means that by definition, all COM-approved SIV applicants’ lives, and frequently the lives of their family, are threatened directly because they allied themselves with the United States and its values. Completing this COM-approval process significantly reduces security risks from the SIV population that would be eligible for parole under this proposal. This is the same standard currently used by the State Department to vet eligibility for SIVs to travel outside of Afghanistan for processing in a third country.
In terms of costs, categorical parole would increase caseloads at the Department of Homeland Security but would reduce urgency-related stress on the system. Additional staffing costs would be funded under Congress’s authorization and appropriation of Sept. 30, 2021, for up to 200,000 parolees. As of today, only roughly 70,000 applications have been submitted, allaying any budgetary concerns.
With categorical parole, the Biden administration can ensure the United States lives up to its moral obligation to protect its former Afghan employees. Granting categorical parole to COM-approved SIV applicants would allow tens of thousands of at-risk allies to evacuate from Afghanistan and resettle safely in the United States while finishing their administrative processing for formal SIV status. A resulting increase in evacuations would further the success of the U.S. government evacuation efforts, demonstrate commitment to American allies and partners, and enhance U.S. efforts to build partnerships globally.