US visa program for Afghan translators needs overhaul

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Sanwar Ali: additional reporting and comments

A report published by Brown University says that the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program, reserved for translators who have helped the US army in Afghanistan and Iraq, needs an overhaul amid criticism of its ‘bureaucratic inefficiencies’ and problems with the application process.

Afghan translators faced terrible risks working for the US military in Afghanistan.  It is not safe for them to wait years in Afghanistan for a US visa.  This should be a US Government funding priority.  More staff are desperately needed to process visa applications.  


The report, released on April 5 under Brown University’s The Costs of War Project, includes a series of recommendations on how to improve the program. One of the key criticisms of the SIV is how difficult it is for people to provide the necessary documentation. The time it takes to process SIVs has also come under scrutiny. 

According to the Brown University report, since the Special Immigrant Visa program was launched, it has struggled to cope with the high number of applications. Meanwhile, according to a 2020 department inspector general report, the US Department of State (DoS) has been slow to process SIVs.



The DoS attributed slow processing times to a lack of staff working on the SIV program, which meant that it failed to meet a Congressionally mandated nine-month timeframe to process visas. Recent reports state that some SIV applicants had been waiting up to seven years for a decision on their cases.

Associate dean for curriculum and pedagogy at Bennington College and the author of the new report, Noah Coburn, determined that the SIV program is in need of major changes. Meanwhile, several independent studies have also examined the Department of State’s inability to cope with demand, resulting in a backlog of almost 19,000 applications.

In his report, Coburn wrote: “The program for Afghans must be reformed by taking a human-focused approach to better support people who risk their lives in service of the US government. That way, those who are put in a state of limbo can be protected from death threats and exploitation by brokers who promise assistance with their visa applications.”


Bureaucratic inefficiencies

“A review must look beyond the current bureaucratic inefficiencies to the impacts that the current process is having on those who are potentially unsuccessful in their applications, as well as the aftereffects for those who do receive visas and settle in the United States,” Coburn’s review added.

For those facing SIV delays, the cost is high. Those left waiting for a visa are often killed or forced to flee the country in which they live, illegally. 

Coburn warned: “Without an almost complete overhaul of the current program, Afghans will continue to die as they wait for their US visas to be processed.”

The report also highlighted a series of other challenges faced by those who do secure their SIV, such as economic hardship and struggles to find employment.

The research conducted by Coburn is endorsed by the Vermont-based Bennington College, a non-government organization that is dedicated to fostering dialogue between the US and countries with predominantly Muslim populations.

The Hollings Center for International Dialogue and advocacy group, No One Left Behind, which helps SIV recipients with financial and housing assistance, have also backed the report.


Safe US passage for Afghans

The SIV program was established by Congress in 2009, giving Afghans who had served US armed forces as translators and in other civilian jobs, safe passage to America. The SIV also provides a pathway to US citizenship and other benefits, including housing assistance.

Between 2009 and 2019 nearly 18,500 Special Immigrant Visas were issued. However, as of September 2019, 19,000 applications remained unprocessed.

Meanwhile, No One Left Behind has reported that at least 300 translators or their family members have been killed as a result of their service to the United States. According to Coburn’s report, the US government doesn’t keep a record of this information, so the precise number of translators and their family members killed is unknown.

The SIV program gives no priority to those deemed to be at the highest risk. Coburn’s report suggests additional support for those in greatest danger, including moving applicants to a more secure location on a temporary basis.


Review of SIV program

The report from The Costs of War Project comes following news of a multiagency review of the SIV to tackle the bureaucratic processes that have cause major backlogs. In an executive order issued by President Biden in February, he directed the review as part of enhancing programs to resettle refugees.

Biden instructed US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to compile a report within 180 days of his executive order, issued on February 4, to ensure that the programs were administered ‘without undue delay’.

It’s understood that this report will analyse agency compliance with laws regarding US visa programs, any undue delays in processing and whether the proper guidelines exist for reopening or reconsidering US visa applications.

The Biden administration’s plan to review the SIV program has been widely welcomed by refugee advocates, army veterans and lawmakers who have long argued that the process of granting SIVs must speed up and more visas must be authorized by Congress.

Coburn’s report said: “The administration’s review is a ‘good step,’ but unless that review takes a closer look at the true human costs of its flawed processes, it is likely to result in little more than bureaucratic tinkering.”

The report has made recommendations beyond the need for increasing visa allowances and calls for a series of reforms. Coburn has urged the Biden administration to examine the entire SIV process ‘holistically’, including how it impacts those who are denied a visa due to the challenges they face with understanding paperwork and supporting evidence requirements.

Coburn said: “The government review must look for ways to better define the terms ‘threat’ and ‘service’ to support those in the most need of protection. The threats that individual translators and other contractors face are not equal. Some contractors work in secure office jobs, while others put their lives at risk daily through military service.”

Data states that around 100,000 Afghans have worked as contractors supporting the US government. However, according to Coburn, the actual number is nearer 300,000. He said: “It’s unclear because the US government does not have a centralized database to track government contractors.”

“The creation of a database for contractors in conflict zones such as Afghanistan would allow applicants to prove they had worked for the US government more easily, as well as provide a way for applicants to contact their former employers,” he added. can help with US employment-based visas

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