Editor’s note: This article is part of Just Security’s ongoing coverage of the U.S. military withdrawal and Taliban takeover in Afghanistan.
Two weeks ago, the Biden administration took a small step toward executing its promise to save U.S. Afghan allies when a plane filled with Afghans touched down at Dulles Airport. Shortly after landing, the 221 allies and their families arrived at Fort Lee, Virginia, where volunteer attorneys, including the authors of this piece, assisted them with their resettlement process. As the United States attempts to evacuate more Afghan allies, it is essential that all allies have access to legal assistance and resources – which can best be provided on U.S. soil.
The families who arrived in Virginia were the first of an estimated 2,500 allies and their families scheduled to arrive in the United States after completing most of the vetting process to obtain their Special Immigrant Visas (SIV), based on their service to the United States during the war. However, an estimated 20,000 Afghans, who risked their lives to assist the U.S. government and work alongside troops as interpreters and in other roles, are eligible to be resettled through the SIV program as lawful permanent residents in the United States. This program is reserved for those who worked as translators or interpreters for the U.S. Armed Forces or under the Chief of Mission authority, or if they worked for or on behalf of the U.S. government in Afghanistan or the International Security Assistance Force. Separately, the State Department recently announced a Priority 2 designation to grant access to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program to those who may not qualify for the SIV program.
Despite longstanding warnings from advocates that these allies would be in danger when U.S. forces withdrew, the administration was initially slow to plan for their departure. A years-long backlog in processing SIV visas has already proven deadly; more than 300 interpreters or family members have been killed for their affiliation with the United States while waiting for visas. A process that should take only nine months often takes years. Now, as the Taliban makes stunning territorial gains daily and the United States prepares for the evacuation of its embassy, the risks to anyone who supported U.S. forces are rapidly escalating.
The need for immediate evacuations is crystal clear. Officials have long floated the possibility of relocating applicants to U.S. territories, military bases, or third countries to ensure their safety as they finish their applications; plans appear to be underway to evacuate some to U.S. military bases in Qatar. As the Biden administration considers whether to evacuate thousands more allies to third countries or bring them to the United States directly, our experiences working with this group made the answer clear: bring them to the United States.
As an attorney and DOJ Accredited Representative qualified to provide immigration legal services, respectively, we volunteered in early August with an immigration services program in Virginia to provide legal assistance to the new arrivals as they navigated the U.S. immigration system and the byzantine, lengthy application process to obtain a green card. That day, we assisted SIV applicants with completing the I-485 Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status, though other SIV applicants will have different needs for legal services.
Our experiences show how critical legal assistance is. The mountains of required legal documents are not easy to complete. Length aside, applicants and their families must collect, organize, and submit reams of information, such as biographical data, employment and residence histories, family background, and more.
There are detailed, multi-part questions. There are incredibly vague questions, such as whether the applicant has ever been a part of a group. Some questions are culturally offensive and age-inappropriate, such as questioning the applicants’ intentions to engage in prostitution or the sale of child pornography. Many are nearly nonsensical, don’t translate well, or sound like traps to Afghans primed by the negative experiences they had navigating the SIV process while in Afghanistan. For example, when asked if they had ever received military, paramilitary, or weapons training, many would answer “no,” perhaps presuming the question referred to foreign militaries without realizing that it also applies to the work many did with the U.S. military that is the very basis for their SIV application.
Inaccurate information on these forms, even if inadvertent, can have severe consequences for applicants’ and their families’ futures and navigating the paperwork to avoid these errors requires familiarity with the U.S. legal system. As such, it’s a process that is ideally completed with the assistance of an immigration attorney.
We spent hours working with applicants and translators to review each question, often multiple times, to make sure each family member, including children, understood what they were being asked and that we precisely and accurately captured their answers.
As is often the case, one family we worked with did not know information that might be considered basic, such as dates of birth and marriage; such information may not have been recorded at the time, or may have been lost in the scramble to escape Afghanistan. Home for them had been a house in a village with no street name or number. We had to rely on the limited documentation they had to verify and cross-check the required information.
After reviewing pages of difficult to translate “yes” or “no” questions about their past, we helped the family provide detailed answers to questions that we knew could be flagged for further inquiry by the government. We had to show them where to find important information in their documents – such as passport numbers, places and dates of birth, and the like. This family had already been working on their visa applications for years, yet these forms were still nearly impossible to complete without substantial legal assistance due to their complexity and language barriers.
The stories we heard were heartbreaking: the evacuees had been obliged to say rushed – if any – goodbyes to family, loved ones, and the only homes they have ever known. A number of the children and family members also had conditions requiring medical attention. Now, they were safe from the threat of the Taliban but facing new, daunting challenges to rebuild their lives.
As the U.S. government scrambles to evacuate Afghan allies and their families, the Biden plan to send these families to military bases in third countries like Qatar does a grave disservice to those who stood with the United States in the conflict. Our recent experience providing legal assistance to the first to arrive in the U.S. makes this clear.
The Afghan allies need access to the U.S. legal system to navigate what has proven to be a fraught process with potentially dire consequences. Over the years, SIV applicants with valid claims have often been denied for bureaucratic reasons, such as missing or incomplete paperwork or difficulty tracking down references or former employers. Access to legal services in the U.S. is critical to help them resolve these issues and file appeals when necessary. When these processes fail, as they too often do, SIV applicants need to be able to access other forms of immigration relief – such as asylum or family-based petitions – that are only available to those present in the U.S.
SIV applicants on military bases in Qatar do not have those same protections. Qatar is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and is not bound by the Convention’s prohibition on refoulement. SIV applicants who are wrongly denied a visa could be forced back to Afghanistan, putting their and their families’ lives in immediate jeopardy. Keeping SIV applicants on military bases in third countries would make this tragically avoidable outcome much more likely.
For these reasons, these families must be brought to U.S. territory where they can access established legal services programs that provide exactly the kind of support such vulnerable groups need. Having an attorney to guide people through the immigration process is critical for the outcome of their applications, especially for those who do not speak English. Bringing Afghan allies here enables them to tap a ready network of volunteer attorneys and translators who cannot access military bases in third countries, and who can prevent avoidable errors from costing allies their safety or their lives.
Legal work is only one kind of help Afghan allies and their families need. Many have been deeply traumatized by their experiences and need far more support than completing paperwork. The services and support system these families need most exist in the United States, not on military bases in foreign countries that are unprepared and poorly resourced for this task. With so much at stake, sending allies to third countries without the legal protections or structures in place to assist them through these challenges is appalling.
They and their families deserve the highest respect for their service and sacrifice. It’s time to welcome them home.