The Biden administration has been working to mitigate the fallout from the situation in Afghanistan after the Taliban’s surprisingly swift takeover of the country. As scenes of Afghans desperate to leave went viral, President Joe Biden announced Monday that the US military will provide assistance to evacuate more Afghans eligible for special immigration visas and their families to the US. Although Biden and his administration have been criticized for not taking this action sooner, he sought to deflect the blame.
“I know there are concerns about why we did not begin evacuating Afghan civilians sooner,” Biden said. “Part of the answer is some of the Afghans did not want to leave earlier. Still hopeful for their country. And part of it is because the Afghan government and its supporters discouraged us from organizing a mass exodus to avoid triggering, as they said, a crisis of confidence.”
Facts First: This needs context. While there may be some Afghans who received visas but didn’t want to leave, there are certainly thousands more who have requested one but were unable to come to the US sooner due to other factors including financial barriers, limited flight availabilities and processing delays, according to experts. Biden’s characterization in particular ignores delays in processing applications for the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program, which the US government could have addressed sooner.
Becca Heller, Executive Director of the International Refugee Assistance Project, which represents Special Immigrant Visa applicants and refugees, said in a press call Wednesday that the Biden administration is “blaming our own allies for their failures” with their explanation for the evacuation timeline.
“The reason many Afghans who are eligible for SIVs were not already here when the government fell has more to do with the massive delays in SIV processing,” Faiza Sayed, Director of the Safe Harbor Clinic, told CNN. Sayed added that cost of travel and issues with accessibility of flights are also contributing factors.
Adam Bates, Policy Counsel for IRAP, noted that “the vast majority of at-risk Afghans in need of evacuation don’t have visas and have never been given an opportunity to come to the US.” According to Bates, this includes ethnic and religious minorities, employees of NGOs and media organizations, human rights advocates and applicants to the Special Immigrant Visa program who haven’t been issued visas.
The Special Immigrant Visa program, which is meant to provide a pathway to the United States for Afghans who were employed by or worked on behalf of the US government, faces a massive backlog and processing takes months, if not years for some. A State Department spokesperson said in mid-July that 20,000 applicants are in various stages of the SIV application process.
The administration has acknowledged these delays and taken some steps to address them, including a surge in personnel to process visas at the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security working overtime on security checks, and assistance from the Department of Defense as the situation on the ground in Afghanistan deteriorated.
The State Department also announced the creation of a new “Priority 2” refugee designation for Afghans who did not qualify for the SIV program.
“We are urgently working on efforts to assist eligible Afghans under the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa program, Priority 1 (P-1) and Priority 2 (P-2) referrals to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, and humanitarian parole,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Tuesday.
The administration has relocated “nearly 2,000 Afghan special immigrants to the United States,” Price said Tuesday.
The evacuations will continue until August 31 by which time the US plans to have withdrawn all its troops.