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Supply of Special Immigrant Visas for Afghans Dwindling

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Supply of Special Immigrant Visas for Afghans Dwindling

As the supply of SIVs dwindles, Congress’ present dysfunction all but ensures the program’s imminent collapse.

Supply of Special Immigrant Visas for Afghans Dwindling
Credit: Depositphotos

In a March 6 briefing, U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller provided an update on the  Afghan special immigrant visa (SIV) program, noting that in the last fiscal year the department has been able to issue more than 39,000 SIVs. That said, Miller pointed out that the State Department is nearing the congressionally set cap.

“… We’re going to hit the cap; we have somewhere around 8,000 [visas] left that we can process this fiscal year,” he said. With the State Department issuing around 1,000 per month, he said, “We are clearly going to hit this cap, and we need statutory approval to raise the cap.”

The SIV program was established in 2009 to resettle Afghans who had worked on behalf of the United States in Afghanistan. It witnessed a surge in interest and attention following the end of the U.S. war in Afghanistan and collapse of the erstwhile Republic government in August 2021. 

Even before then, the program suffered from a confluence of problems, from the pandemic to chronic understaffing, not to mention bureaucratic hurdles exacerbated by the Trump administration’s anti-immigration bent.

An August 2023 State Department Office of Inspector General (OIG) review of the program (a follow-up on previous reviews, in October 2022 and June 2020) marked progress on expediting the issuance of SIVs. But although the OIG “found that the Department took actions beginning in February 2021 to streamline Afghan SIV applicant processing and mitigate some processing issues,” as of December 2022 they had not eliminated the backlog, which had only increased following August 2021.

The review noted ongoing challenges, notably the fact that the State Department “relies on Taliban cooperation for SIV applicant relocation from the country because of a lack of a ground presence in Afghanistan.”

One issue outside of State’s control is the topline number of SIVs available, the cap to which Miller referred. That’s in Congress’ dysfunctional hands.

“We have urged Congress to raise the cap and allow us to meet our obligation to those Afghans who put their lives on the line for the United States, make sure that they are not forgotten,” Miller said. “Congress has not acted yet, so we are urging them to do so, because we are going to hit that cap and we want to make sure that we can continue to grant as many of these visas as is appropriate and is possible.”

In June 2023, as Congress grappled over the National Defense Authorization Act of 2024 and other major funding bills, voices urging the SIV cap to be raised by 20,000 were ultimately drowned out. The NDAA (2024) that was signed into law in December 2023 made an additional 3,500 SIVs available in fiscal year 2024, with the additional provision that “For fiscal year 2025 and each fiscal year thereafter, not more than 3,000 visas shall be made available… “

According to a September 2023 State Department report referenced by Reuters, “some 130,000 full or partial applications were awaiting processing.”

While State accelerates its issuance of visas, the available supply is dwindling. Meanwhile, the only body with the power to increase the number of available SIVs, Congress, is mired in its own dysfunction. The looming repeat of the 2020 presidential race, between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, this November will do little to inspire bipartisanship in Congress, and SIV applicants will be among the many to suffer the consequences.