Fixing our bureaucracy would have saved Afghan lives

Fixing our bureaucracy would have saved Afghan lives
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America’s frantic evacuation from Afghanistan ended with the news that a majority of Afghans who risked their lives working for the United States were left behind. It didn’t have to be this way.

The Biden administration argues that many Afghans didn’t want to leave until it was too late. But the real reason is that a byzantine security bureaucracy has a stranglehold on our immigration policy. If the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program launched in 2008 worked as intended, the number of Afghan allies stuck in Kabul today would likely be far lower. 

The SIV program was created to provide U.S. visas to Iraqi and later Afghan translators whose work with the U.S. put them at risk. It was expanded to include other Afghan civilians working on behalf of the United States. While legitimate security concerns necessitate screening, the program goes well beyond that. Since its inception, it has been mired in bureaucracy, redundancies and baseless security screenings that make it more difficult but do nothing to make America safer. 

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For years, it has required applicants to navigate a 14-step process involving multiple offices and agencies, often without reliable internet access. The SIV process requires sequenced actions by the U.S. embassy in Kabul, the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa Unit (first based in Kabul and then Washington, D.C.), the National Visa Center in New Hampshire, the Department of Homeland Security in Nebraska and the Bureau of Consular Affairs in Washington, D.C. Multiple visits to the U.S. embassy in Kabul were both time consuming and risky for many who had already risked their lives in service to America.

As one example of the unnecessary obstacles they faced, applicants had to find an American to vouch for them because the Department of Defense (DoD) never bothered to set up a centralized database to identify who had eligible employment and for how long

To this day, we still don’t know how many Afghans worked for us and how many died doing so. Afghans resort to Facebook to track down former American colleagues, and even with personal sponsors, the State Department must separately confirm their employment. DoD launched a “Find My Supervisor” link on the SIV application website, but it was broken for a year.

Applicants who made it to the interview needed medical clearances from a specific clinic in Kabul that was sometimes shuttered for days due to security threats. Getting an appointment could take months.

Then they still had to endure a rigorous, interagency security check process that could take months or years. According to the Inspector General’s Office, the State Department had only one officer to conduct over 18,000 security checks, and the Trump administration never appointed a coordinator to manage the SIV process.

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Even the cultural competency of those doing the vetting left much to be desired. More diversity in staffing and leadership would help ensure the cultural literacy and nuance needed for a fair vetting process.

Some of these obstacles are unique to the SIV program, but many are characteristics inherent in our immigration system overall.

Staffing for security check divisions across the government had not changed in five years, and the underlying policy assumptions about relevant risks were deeply flawed. Until 2017, even minor children, the elderly and spouses of SIV applicants were subjected individually to these same rigorous security checks.

While Congress mandates that SIV cases be processed in nine months, each generally took two to three and a half years to complete. And that doesn’t include the thousands unjustly denied. As late as April 2021, with the Taliban poised to overrun the country, the backlog was almost 19,000 applications with 53,000 family members — more than the entire number of Afghans who have received visas in almost 20 years of war.

If this is how we treat high-priority immigration applicants who risked their lives for our country, you can only imagine how the immigration system treats ordinary immigrants. Long delays, unstaffed security clearance processes, random visa denials and overreliance on suspect techniques like facial expressions and social media checks are standard. Treating children as if they are terrorists isn’t unique to Afghanistan either. 

President BidenJoe BidenOvernight Defense & National Security — Milley becomes lightning rod Democrats hope Biden can flip Manchin and Sinema On The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Democrats advance tax plan through hurdles MORE and Congress must recognize the risk Afghan SIVs and their families now face as a result of unnecessary bureaucratic obstacles. With many more Afghan allies left to process and our embassy in Kabul shuttered, streamlining the SIV program is essential, but it won’t be sufficient. We need comprehensive immigration reform, including of security vetting, to return rationality to our immigrant visa decisions.

It may be too late for many of our Afghan allies, but we owe it to those we failed before and those who serve us in the future to fix this broken system.

Chris Richardson, an immigration lawyer, was a U.S. diplomat between 2011 and 2018 and served in Nigeria, Nicaragua, Pakistan and Spain. Elizabeth Shackelford, senior fellow on U.S. foreign policy with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, was a U.S. diplomat between 2010 and 2017 and served in Poland, South Sudan, Somalia and Washington, D.C.