(CNN) — The State Department announced Monday that it will expand access to the US refugee program for certain Afghans amid fears of reprisal by the Taliban as the US military withdrawal nears completion.
The process of applying for the Special Immigrant Visa program to come to the United States can take years, however, and of the 20,000 people in the SIV pipeline, about 10,000 have only just begun the process, the State Department said in recent weeks.
Violence in Afghanistan has escalated over the last few weeks, leading lawmakers, advocates and non-profit groups to raise concerns that the Biden administration would not be able to relocate SIV applicants who helped American troops and diplomats quickly enough.
“This designation expands the opportunity to permanently resettle in the United States to many thousands of Afghans and their immediate family members who may be at risk due to their U.S. affiliation but who are not eligible for a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) because they did not have qualifying employment, or because they have not met the time-in-service requirement to become eligible,” the State Department said.
“The U.S. objective remains a peaceful, secure Afghanistan,” a fact sheet from the agency said. “However, in light of increased levels of Taliban violence, the U.S. government is working to provide certain Afghans, including those who worked with the United States, the opportunity for refugee resettlement to the United States.”
‘Groups of special concern’
On Friday, the first flight of SIV applicants — about 200 people, including those who worked with the US and their families — landed in the US, part of a priority group of 700 Afghan SIV applicants who have completed most of the background process required to get a visa. Along with their families, they number about 2,500.
The State Department said that Afghans who did not meet the minimum “time in service” eligibility requirement for the SIV program but “work or worked as employees of contractors, locally-employed staff, interpreters/translators” for the US government, US or NATO forces, those “who work or worked for a U.S. government-funded program or project in Afghanistan supported through a U.S. government grant or cooperative agreement,” and those “who are or were employed in Afghanistan by a U.S.-based media organization or non-governmental organization” as well as their eligible family members will be given Priority 2 designation, making them eligible for the refugee program.
According to the department, Priority 2 designation applies to “groups of special concern designated by the Department of State as having access to the program by virtue of their circumstances and apparent need for resettlement.”
“Once cases receive access to the (US Refugee Admissions Program), they undergo the same processing steps, including extensive security vetting,” the fact sheet said.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken will address the matter Monday afternoon at the State Department.