State Department nixed interviews for Afghan allies seeking evacuation

State Department nixed interviews for Afghan allies seeking evacuation

More than 450 Afghan allies awaiting final interviews to evacuate to the U.S. had those interviews canceled when Americans withdrew from Afghanistan in August, the State Department revealed.

It’s not clear what became of them. The Biden administration said it could not divulge details of individual cases, and military advocacy groups said they could not ascertain how many are still awaiting rescue in the country or whether any of them made it out as part of the chaotic airlift.

“Those who have been left behind, along with their families, remain in critical life-or-death situations, so time is of the essence. We continue to urge every American to contact their congressional delegation and insist the protection of our heroic allies and their families remain a top priority,” said Mario A. Marquez, director of national security at the American Legion.

Those allies — who served as translators, guides or in other supporting roles for American troops — were supposed to be the heart of the airlift. The Biden administration vowed to help them reach safety as thanks for all they had done to support the 20-year war effort. The government even created a special path to citizenship for them: the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV).

Yet most of the 76,000 Afghans flown out of Kabul were not eligible for the special visa, and thousands believed to have been eligible were stranded.

Six months after the airlift, new details are emerging about the Biden administration’s emergency effort to award as many SIVs as possible and how much work is left to be done.

In an update quietly posted online this month, officials acknowledged the canceled interviews.

“Following the suspension of operations at Embassy Kabul on August 31, 2021, 451 interviews scheduled at U.S. Embassy Kabul for September 2021 had to be canceled,” the department said in releasing data on the SIV for July, August and September.

State Department officials said those awaiting interviews should try to schedule them at embassies or consulates in other countries — if they can somehow make it out of Afghanistan.

“Following the suspension of operations at Embassy Kabul, we do not have a consular presence in Afghanistan, so applicants are unable to complete the statutorily mandated steps and security procedures in the visa application process that require their in-person presence before a consular officer inside Afghanistan,” the department said in a statement to The Washington Times.

Interest in SIVs soared as Afghans watched their country collapse. Those who thought they might be eligible rushed to apply.

The State Department conducted nearly 45,000 case reviews from July to September. That was triple the number from April to June.

Approval rates soared. The government issued about 5,500 SIVs from July to September, more than in the previous nine months combined.

The State Department has made strides in reducing the application time by eliminating a committee that evaluated whether Afghans had enough of a connection to the U.S. war effort. Now those decisions are made by the assistant chief of mission, cutting that step from an average of 544 days to 277 days.

State also reassigned employees from other missions to assist, and the Biden administration waived medical exam requirements.

Even with those changes, special visas awarded in the quarter from July to September took an average of 435 processing days. That didn’t include the time applicants needed to assemble documents and fill out forms.

People who applied in late 2020 are still waiting for approval, and those who applied amid the chaos last summer have even longer waits.

“At their own projected rate of 1,000 SIVs a month, and a few others, beginning in March, it will take State years to evacuate the SIV population alone,” said Mike Edwards, head of Project Exodus Relief, which is working to evacuate left-behind Afghan allies.

Other hiccups included troubling stories from Afghans who turned over their passports to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul for final approval last summer. The embassy destroyed those passports as part of its evacuation cleansing.

When Afghans inquired what to do, advocates said, they were met with a shrug.

The interview is step 12 in a 14-step process for obtaining an SIV.

First, applicants must justify that their service was long enough and close enough with American troops. If the State Department approves, applicants apply to the Department of Homeland Security. If they clear that hurdle, they apply to State’s National Visa Center, which rechecks the documents and conducts interviews. The final step is supposed to be a medical exam.

According to State Department data, 1,940 Afghans had interviews from July to September. That doesn’t include the 451 interviews scheduled but canceled in Kabul.

Some Afghans in the SIV pipeline, and perhaps some whose interviews were canceled, made it out during the airlift and can complete applications from within the U.S., but a full accounting of the numbers has yet to be divulged.

Most of those brought to the U.S. in the airlift were admitted under “humanitarian parole,” a tentative status that bestows work permits and some benefits but doesn’t include an automatic path to citizenship.

The Biden administration said it has set up a fast-track system to transport other allies from Afghanistan to Qatar for processing and then hurry them to the U.S. under either the special visas or as refugees, both of which have pathways to citizenship.

Advocacy groups worry it’s too little, too late.

“State continues to insist they are evacuating at a record pace, and yet on the ground and from our perspective, the manifest submissions are growing while there are fewer flights,” Mr. Edwards said. “The people of Afghanistan who we made this promise to don’t have that time.”

Expediting approvals carries danger, said Nayla Rush, a senior researcher at the Center for Immigration Studies.

She said adjudicators might approve applications for people who haven’t taken all the usual steps or lacked documents. Indeed, most of the 76,000 Afghans came to the U.S. without undergoing in-person interviews, which are required under the SIV or refugee programs.

“I am never happy when things are expedited,” Ms. Rush said.

Those who remain behind face dangers of retaliation from Taliban militants and drastic shortages of food and supplies, experts say.

The United Nations said more than half of the country’s population will struggle to get enough food this winter and many will face starvation. Some 3.2 million children are malnourished.

The Biden administration announced late last week that it would seize some $7 billion that Afghanistan’s central bank had sitting in the U.S. and set up a trust fund to send half of that — $3.5 billion — back to the country in the form of directed aid.

Administration officials said they are working on how exactly the money can be used.

The money won’t be captured for several months at least while the government awaits a ruling from a federal judge in disputes.

The Biden administration said it has spent more than $500 million in taxpayer funds on Afghanistan assistance since August.