The report released Thursday by the State Department’s inspector general outlines steps the department took to improve processing of special immigrant visas for Afghans. But two years after the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan and the return of the Taliban to power, challenges remain.
The visa program was started in 2009 to help Afghans who worked side by side with Americans and faced significant risks for doing so. A similar program exists for Iraqis. Both programs have been plagued by criticism that cases move much too slowly, leaving applicants in dangerous limbo.
And since the U.S. left Afghanistan, the number of people applying for the visas has skyrocketed. According to the report, there were fewer than 30,000 applicants in October 2021, but by December 2022 that number had grown to roughly 155,000. Those figures do not include family members who are allowed to resettle with applicants who secure approval.
The State Department estimates that as of April of this year more than 840,000 applicants for the special visa program and their family members remain in Afghanistan, the report said. Not everyone who applies is accepted; the State Department noted that about 50% of applicants do not qualify when their applications are reviewed at a key stage early in the process.
The department also said that since the start of the Biden administration in January 2021 through August 1 of this year, it has issued nearly 34,000 visas for the applicants and their family members, which it said was a substantial increase from previous years.
The report said the department has hired more staff to process applications, coordinated with the Pentagon to verify applicants’ employment and eliminated some of the steps required of applicants. But, the report said, there was more it could do. For example, the report noted that a key position overseeing the special immigrant visa process has seen frequent turnover and vacancies.