We must stop excluding Afghan women and children from visa eligibility

A nurse checks the weight of a child in a makeshift clinic organized by World Vision at a settlement near Herat, Afghanistan
Associated Press/Mstyslav Chernov

The United States is still not doing enough to protect vulnerable Afghan women and children six months after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Afghan women bear the brunt of Taliban atrocities and have been continuously overlooked when it’s mattered most, including during the chaotic U.S. withdrawal in August. The latest expedited screening plan for U.S. resettlement excludes women because most female evacuees don’t qualify for Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs).

The interpreters and others who held roles currently eligible for SIVs stood with us throughout the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. They deserve to be protected for their service. But the professions outlined within the eligibility requirements are primarily dominated by men. And we cannot forget that women — although often in different roles — stood with us, too.

We applaud the U.S. government’s efforts to resettle our Afghan allies as fast as possible, particularly given the capacity challenges in our immigration system. The staffing shortages and long backlogs are real. We respect that there are many people in line who are just as deserving of faster processing. 

But let’s broaden the scope of the administration’s current plan and open this expedited third-country processing to Afghan women, too. The more quickly they are securely processed and admitted to the United States, the faster they can begin to rebuild their lives.

Excluding Afghan women from the administration’s Afghanistan policy, even unintentionally, is a reoccurring problem.

Despite global and national pronouncements on the importance of women for peace and security, the limited scope of resettlement pathways — like the SIV program for Afghans who helped the U.S. government — overlooked the significant impact of women in advancing democracy, stability and prosperity.

Women who worked for nongovernmental organizations funded by U.S. and NATO grants don’t qualify for the primary visa program for Afghans who helped the government, even when they were just as important to the international efforts in Afghanistan.

As entrepreneurs and educators, women advanced development and opportunity. As policewomen, judges and prosecutors, they worked to protect the vulnerable and strengthen justice systems and the rule of law. As program leads and nonprofit professionals, they carried forward projects that promoted equality and enhanced critical infrastructure and regional stability.

Most importantly, in their pursuit of a brighter future for their country, they helped to bolster global security.

Because of these efforts and their commitment to ideals of freedom, democracy, and the inherent dignity of all, they are in just as much danger from the Taliban as their male counterparts. But unlike the men, these women had almost no legal path to migrate before the withdrawal.

They were finally given a small opportunity when priority refugee status was announced for them a mere two weeks before the fall of Kabul — two weeks for a process that typically takes more than a year.

Without any legal immigration status or official documentation, many were turned away at the airport gates during the evacuation. A lucky few were evacuated via private efforts. Of these women, many are idling in third countries like Albania and Pakistan, waiting for parole paperwork that is likely to be denied. Some have a priority refugee status that will take years to approve.

Their money is inaccessible because of Afghanistan’s economic crisis, and most are dependent on refugee agencies or the generosity of private donors to meet their basic needs. In many instances, their status in these third countries also prohibits them from employment or for their children to attend school. In every capacity, they are stuck in flux.

For those still in Afghanistan — many of whom are in hiding — their only good option is to apply as refugees once they manage to leave Afghanistan. And this is nearly impossible. 

Are these women not just as deserving of the opportunity to rebuild their lives? And if we’re not going to resettle them in the U.S. quickly, what are we doing to help them find a permanent placement elsewhere?

Anyone who has had the privilege of knowing these Afghan advocates understands how hard they worked to usher in a peaceful future. If they had had more time, they would have brought Afghanistan forward through sheer force of will.

All Afghans, regardless of gender, deserve to live in freedom and have their rights and agency not only recognized but protected. Global stability benefited greatly from the efforts of Afghan women. Its time U.S. immigration policy truly acknowledges that support. 

Laura Collins is director of the George W. Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative.

Natalie Gonnella-Platts is director of the George W. Bush Institute Women’s Initiative.

Tags afghan women Afghanistan Diplomacy Immigration Laura Collins Military Natalie Gonnella-Platts Refugee Visa

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