With the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban in August, tens of thousands of refugees have traveled to the United States in the hopes of avoiding persecution at the hands of the new regime. As of mid-September, an estimated 124,000 men, women and children had been airlifted out of the country, with possibly more than 1,000 Americans and an untold number of other at-risk Afghans still hoping to evacuate.
As part of the relocation effort, the Department of Defense designated at least three locations in Virginia to be used as temporary housing for these individuals: Marine Corps Base Quantico in northern Virginia, Fort Lee in Prince George County and Fort Pickett in Nottaway County. Many of these refugees are hoping to stay in the United States permanently, especially those who worked closely with U.S. and NATO forces over the past two decades.
As recognition for the service of these individuals, the U.S. has granted many of them Special Immigrant Visas (SIV). The SIV program was first established by the Bush Administration in 2006 and was started, in particular, to aid Afghan and Iraqi citizens who directly assisted U.S. military or diplomatic efforts. The program was designed to act as a pathway to permanent legal residency for those deemed eligible, and is meant to include State Department refugee benefits.
An unfortunate reality seems to be, however, that U.S. immigration services were not prepared to process the sheer number of SIV petitions that have flooded their facilities over the past few months. With a pending backlog of SIV petitions in the tens of thousands, it seems obvious that the program was not designed to accommodate a rapid mass evacuation.
Recently, I met a man who served in the U.S. military in Afghanistan for a few years in the early 2000s but has not been back since. He told me that since the withdrawal of U.S. forces, he and many other former service members have been inundated with hundreds of calls, texts, emails and messages on social media from individuals claiming to be Afghan citizens desperate to leave their country. What is more startling is that while he remembered a few of these individuals from his deployment, he has absolutely no idea who the vast majority of them are, or how they obtained his and even his wife’s contact information. He said the calls and messages are almost always the same: “I worked with you in Afghanistan; Please send paperwork on my behalf to U.S. Immigration Services verifying that I assisted the U.S. mission. My family and I are in hiding, and if I am not able to procure a Visa, we will all be killed. You are our only hope of escape.”
As gut-wrenching as these messages are, it is simply impossible to respond to each one, and this man indicated that even if he knew who these people were, his ability to aid them in their SIV request is extremely limited. Currently, the Visa system requires a 14-step process that also relies on agencies outside of the State Department for final approval.
Because of these shortcomings in the SIV program, many refugees who have been able to make it into the U.S. have begun applying for other forms of relief from U.S. Customs and Immigration Services. Law firms that offer immigration assistance are working as fast as they can to evaluate individual cases and prepare whatever petitions may be most effective in allowing these people to remain in the country legally. As an example, our firm’s lead Immigration counsel, Barb Hanna, says she has seen a dramatic increase in the number of clients seeking asylum over the past few months. To be eligible for asylum, the petitioner must demonstrate either a history of past persecution or a well founded fear of being persecuted in the future because of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion. Under that criteria, it is easy to see commonality between those seeking asylum and those seeking SIVs; however, the processing time for asylum seekers is often a years-long endeavor as well.
While attorneys in Virginia and across the country, like Ms. Hanna, continue to work tirelessly to accommodate a constant demand for relief, it seems clear that the U.S. is ready for a major overhaul when it comes to processing Immigration petitions, especially for those who are most vulnerable.