The Special Immigrant Visas program was, like the war in Afghanistan, poorly defined and poorly executed. Still is.
The story of Afghans fleeing their country seeking Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) is the story of the war.
In the hubris of 20 years ago, no one could conceive the U.S. would need to evacuate locals who worked with us. Instead, they would form the vanguard of a New Afghanistan (and then Iraq). Admitting some sort of escape program was needed was admitting our wars were failing, and so progress implementing the SIV program was purposefully very slow. When it became obvious even in Washington that we were losing, an existing State Department perk for local employees was hastily remade into a covert refugee program.
Even then, with no one wanting to really acknowledge the historic scale of our failures, the SIV program was never properly staffed to succeed. Instead, it was tarted up to appear to be doing something good while never having any plan in place to do that good, like the war itself. Admitting we had a refugee program for countries we had liberated was a tough swallow.
Now, at the end, the Afghans who trusted the SIV program—trusted us—will randomly be rushed through the pipeline to make a few happy headlines, or left behind to their fate on the ground. No one now in the government actually cares what happens to them, as long as they go away somehow. At best the SIV program will be used to create a few human-interest stories to help cover up some of the good we otherwise failed to do. Hey, Ghazari made it to America and she’s a YouTuber now!
The current SIV story starts with the end of the Vietnam war, the desperate locals who worked for us clambering aboard the last helicopters off the roof of the embassy, followed by thousands of boat people. A sloppy coda to an expected unexpected ending. This is what the wartime SIV program was supposed to be about, you know, never again.
During the first few years of the Iraq and Afghan wars (“the Wars”), the official vision in Washington was that the Wars would transform the countries into happy meals of robust prosperity and nascent democracy. Congress, imagining early local hires as our American Gurkhas, loyal brown servants all, wanted to say thanks. They created a visa program modeled after the existing Special Immigrant Visa.
The State Department had run the peacetime SIV program abroad for many decades. Local employees—say a Japanese passport clerk working in the Tokyo embassy—after 15 years of service could be rewarded a SIV to the homeland. Such a prize would encourage workers to stay around for a full career, and of course we knew they wanted to be like us anyway.
Congress wanted the same thing for the Wars. In 2006 they authorized 50 Special Immigrant Visas annually to Iraqi and Afghans working for the U.S. military. The cap was set at 50 because the visa was intended only for the very best, and besides, most locals would for sure want to live in their newly democratized countries anyway.
What seemed like a good idea in the hazy early days of the Wars turned out to not make any sense given events on the ground. Military leaders saw their local helpers murdered by growing insurgencies Washington pretended did not exist. Political winds in Washington went round and round over the issue. The total number of visas was expanded to 500 per year, but only in Iraq and only for two years.
To help keep the pile of applications in check, lower ranking soldiers could not supply the key letter of recommendation each applicant needed. That still had to be addressed to the ambassador (chief of mission) and signed by a general, admiral, or similar big shot. The military chain of command would be used to slow down applications until we won the Wars.
Despite a brave face, the SIV program quickly devolved into a pseudo-refugee route to save the lives of locals who helped us conquer. In 2008 the number of Special Immigrant Visas was upped to 5,000 annually through FY 2012 for Iraqis (but not Afghans, we thought we were still winning there). Legal changes also reduced the necessary service to America to only a year, but added the criteria “must have experienced or are experiencing an ongoing serious threat as a consequence of that employment.”
Importantly, the critical letter of recommendation no longer had to come from an inaccessible big shot per se. Officially the letter still had to be co-signed by the brass but in fact could be written by a lower level supervisor, such as the U.S. citizen who directly supervised the local. The letter needed only to include a brief description of “faithful service,” nothing more.
The standard of proof required for the “ongoing serious threat” was reduced to a self-statement by the local. Visas not used in one year could be rolled over into the next year. Documents could be submitted by email, ending the almost impossible task of accessing the fortress embassies for all but the final interview.
Like the Wars themselves, good ideas on paper were lost in the desert. Simple steps devolved into dead-ends, with questions like whether the letter needed to be on DOD letterhead, a minor thing that became a game-ender if the American supervisor had left the service. The ever-prissy State Department also warned “all letters of recommendation should be proofread closely. Letters of recommendation with significant spelling and grammar errors may delay processing.”
But the biggest hurdle was always the security advisory opinion, SAO, a background clearance check showing the applicant was not a bad guy. The problem, exacerbated in the Wars’ countries where names and dates of birth can be flexible, is the loyal translator hired in haste in 2010 and known to Sergeant Snuffy only as “Candy” might also have been trying to save her family in 2020 by passing information to the Taliban, if not the Chinese—Afghanistan was always the Great Game after all. The SAO is a whole-of-government file check. Average processing is over three years.
Despite over 26,000 SIV visas available for Afghans (the Iraqi program sunset in 2014) at no point in the two decade war were more than 4,000 principals ever issued in a year (inflated numbers from State always include tag-along spouses and an average of four children for each principal applicant.) A whole new application category, Priority 2, was created simply for those Afghans who could not quite meet the statutory requirements of the SIV program. As recently as July 30 Congress authorized 8,000 additional SIVs for Afghans.
But visa supply is not the issue, processing is and always has been. The estimate is some 20,000 active Afghan SIV applications are still somewhere in the pipeline, currently located outside Kabul airport.
None of this is new. One NGO which helps Afghans in the SIV process bemoans the fact that their efforts to speed things up have stumbled across three administrations, seven Congresses, seven secretaries of Defense, and five secretaries of State. State had agreed in 2018 to clear the backlog of SIV applications as part of a class action lawsuit but never did. A 2020 State Department Inspector General report found the SIV program’s understaffing made it unable to meet a congressionally mandated nine-month response time. SIV staffing levels at State hadn’t changed since 2016, despite a 50 percent increase in applicants. There was only one analyst dedicated to SAO security checks. The program’s senior management position was left unfilled for three years.
State never built a centralized database to verify applicants’ U.S. government employment and instead relied on multiple computer systems which could not connect to each other, leading to workers manually typing in information. A little late, in February President Biden issued an executive order demanding another review of delays. Meanwhile, in the first three months of 2021 the State Department issued only 137 SIVs. It was as if someone wanted the program to fail.
There is now pressure on Biden to “do something” about the Afghan SIVs in the few days left to many of them. What happens to the ones left behind is up to the Taliban. For those evacuated, to where and what purpose? Will they still be wading through the bureaucracy years from now, out of sight in refugee camps? Or will the SIV rules be thrown out and everyone rapidly approved to avoid another Biden disaster? Maybe Biden will put Kamala in charge of the program.
That’s the beast of the Afghan War, SIV version: all too little, too late, all uncertain, all based on thrown-together plans, stymied by hubris, failure to admit we screwed up, and a failure to coordinate a whole-of-government approach. And so people suffer and people die in chaos in some faraway place. Again.
Peter Van Buren is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent.