Biden administration expands Afghan refugee program amid Taliban violence
The Biden administration on Monday said it is expanding eligibility for at-risk Afghans looking to come to the United States as refugees, citing increased Taliban violence.
Afghans who work or worked for a U.S. government-funded program in Afghanistan or who are current or former employees of U.S.-based media organizations on nongovernmental organizations will now be able to apply through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program to permanently resettle in the U.S.
Those who worked as contractors, interpreters or translators for the U.S. and NATO military operation in Afghanistan but who do not meet the minimum time requirement for a Special Immigrant Visa will also be eligible to apply.
The State Department said that the new “Priority 2” 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).”
A senior State Department official told reporters that individuals will need to be referred by their employer through a State Department website.
The Biden administration will not begin processing applicants until they are outside of Afghanistan and in third countries. It is expected to take between 12 and 14 months to process applicants.
The senior State Department official said that applicants will be responsible for getting themselves and their families out of Afghanistan and that the administration does not plan to relocate applicants before or during the application process.
“However, we continue to review the situation on the ground and we continue to examine all options to protect those who served with or for us,” the official said.
This differs from the approach the administration is taking with respect to applicants for Special Immigrant Visas, some of whom the administration has started evacuating before they complete their applications.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to deliver remarks formally announcing the new designation Monday afternoon at the State Department.
The Biden administration in July formally launched Operation Allies Refuge, the program through which it is evacuating Afghans who assisted U.S. forces and are at risk of being killed by the Taliban after the U.S. withdrawal from the war-torn country. The administration has been under pressure from lawmakers to move quicker to help at-risk Afghans who assisted U.S. forces.
The first group of Afghans departed Afghanistan for the U.S. last week. The group of more than 200 was taken to Fort Lee, Va., where they will complete the SIV application process.
They are part of a larger group of 2,500 Afghans, which includes interpreters and their families, who have completed most of the visa application process. An estimated 18,000 applicants and 53,000 family members are already awaiting visas.
Congress authorized 8,000 more visas to the program in a spending package that President Biden signed into law last week.
It’s unclear precisely how many more Afghans will be eligible to apply through the U.S. refugee program under the new designation. The senior State Department official told reporters it was likely to be in the tens of thousands but said the administration was unsure of the size.
Most U.S. troops have already withdrawn from Afghanistan though the military mission will formally come to an end on Aug. 29. The Taliban has made gains in Afghanistan as the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces has progressed, seizing key districts from Afghan government forces.
The New York Times and other outlets reported over the weekend that Lashkar Gah, a major city in the southwest that is the capital of Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, was in danger of falling to the Taliban.
Rebecca Kheel contributed reporting. Updated at 11:10 a.m.