WASHINGTON — As violence in Afghanistan soars, the Biden administration announced Monday that it was expanding the pool of endangered Afghans who can receive refugee visas, but the system’s complexities may limit who can benefit.
The new visa program comes after demands from Congress, news organizations and human rights groups for greater protection for tens of thousands of Afghans who worked with U.S. entities during the two-decade war and now face potential retaliation from Taliban forces advancing swiftly as U.S. and NATO troops withdraw.
Among the newly eligible are Afghans who worked for U.S. nongovernmental organizations, aid programs and media. Administration officials said they could not estimate how many people would qualify but that it could be tens of thousands.
Already, some 20,000 of Afghans who worked as translators for the U.S. military and diplomatic missions are being considered for special immigrant visas or have expressed interest in acquiring them. A first group of about 200 visa recipients arrived at an army base in Virginia last week and another 2,500 or so, including family members, are expected in the coming weeks.
Yet many thousands more Afghans say their lives are at risk as the Taliban takes control of more territory.
The expanded program requires the individuals and families to get themselves out of Afghanistan before their cases can be processed — a potential deal-killer for many.
A senior administration official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity in keeping with government protocols, acknowledged that the requirement will be difficult for many to meet. The visa process starts only when the applicants’ employers refer them to the program; then the applicants must go to a third country. Approval can take a year to 14 months, the official said.
The program is a “unique form of protection to those who are particularly vulnerable as a result of their affiliation with the United States,” the official said.
In a separate statement, the State Department outlined the program for the visas, known as Priority 2 within the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.
“The U.S. objective remains a peaceful, secure Afghanistan,” it said in a statement. “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.”
The Taliban and the U.S.-backed Afghan government have been engaged in talks aimed at achieving a political settlement to the long conflict, but those efforts have largely stalemated as the Taliban presses ahead with its military advance. The U.S. withdrawal is expected to be complete this month.