Organizations Urge Expansion of Visa Program to Help Subcontractor and Subgrantee Employees Leave Afghanistan
Currently such employees do not qualify for special visa programs, leaving them in a precarious situation as evacuation efforts grow more difficult.
Contractor organizations and nonprofit groups are calling for the expansion of visa eligibility to cover employees of subcontractors and subgrantees in Afghanistan as they attempt to join the often “complicated” and “bureaucratic” evacuation process that got even more challenging with explosions outside the Hamid Karzai International Airport Thursday.
Since August 14, the United States has evacuated and facilitated the evacuation of about 95,700 people and since the end of July, it has relocated about 101,300 people, the White House said Thursday morning. According to the International Rescue Alliance, “at least 263,000 Afghan civilians have been affiliated with the U.S. mission and tens of thousands are eligible for [special immigrant visas].”
On August 2, the State Department announced a priority 2 (P-2) program for those who don’t meet the service time limit for SIVs, but “work or worked as employees of contractors, locally-employed staff, interpreters/translators for the U.S. government, United States Forces Afghanistan, International Security Assistance Force, or Resolute Support,” among other entities.
However, “Afghans who work/worked for subcontractors and subgrantees do not qualify for the P-2 program,” said a footnote in the announcement. “Though they may have access to [the United States Refugee Admissions Program] through a P-1 embassy referral (if well-known to an embassy direct-hire American) or through a referral from [the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] or a designated [non-governmental organization.]”
Howie Lind, president and executive director of the International Stability Operations Association, one of several industry groups that have been working to get their federal contractor members out of Afghanistan, said in a statement to Government Executive on Tuesday that the group is also “taking action to protect the large numbers of Afghans who worked for U.S. interests as part of subcontracts, grant programs and cooperative agreements with [non-governmental organizations]. At the best of times, these legal distinctions don’t affect employees, but now, it can mean the difference between life and death. ISOA is actively engaged with Evacuate Our Allies to support the Afghan human rights defenders, women’s rights advocates, journalists, and civil society leaders who also need assistance and a safe way out of Afghanistan. And we believe the current SIV program needs to be expanded to include these loyal Afghan allies.” The association was not sure how many individuals fall into this category.
According to Daniel Runde, senior vice president and director of the Project on Prosperity and Development, and William A. Schreyer Chair in Global Analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “for a variety of bureaucratic reasons, the State Department has interpreted the SIV legislation as including only those who have worked directly on contracts.” Therefore, this excludes, “those who have worked for subcontractors and, more importantly, large grantees and subgrantees in Afghanistan such as the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, Catholic Relief Services, WorldVision, and nongovernmental organizations that worked specifically with women on political and economic issues.”
During a press conference hosted by House Foreign Affairs Committee members on Wednesday, Chase Millsap, a 10-year veteran of the Marine Corps and Army Special Forces who served three combat tours in Iraq, and now the chief content officer of We Are The Mighty, a veteran-led military media agency, said, “I'm asking the president to expand the existing interpretation of the Afghan Allies Protection Act to ensure SIV-eligibility to Afghans who worked for grants, U.S.-funded grants, P1/P2 eligibility and all the resources they need for resettlement.”
Andrew Swick, communications representative for Vets4Afghans and senior director for policy research at National Journal, told Government Executive on Wednesday that Vets4Afghans believes the “U.S. government needs to fulfill its commitment to our allies and partners before it’s too late, by drastically expanding the scope of Afghans being allowed to process through [Hamid Karzai International Airport], including SIV holders, SIV applicants, and applicants for P1/P2 visas and humanitarian parole.”
The P-2 visa process “would theoretically bring in a larger group of Afghans who worked with the U.S. [government] over the years,” he said. However, this “was only made available as an option over the last week or so, though, and as with previous categories is not being processed quickly if at all. At the moment it seems like a band-aid applied to a much larger wound.”
InterAction, the largest alliance of international NGOs and partners in the country, along with more than 65 other organizational signatories, whose names were not published for security concerns, sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken to “applaud the recent expansion of eligibility under P-2,” but say they are still concerned about “the scope and operationalization of this protection pathway.”
They asked him to “allow those who worked on subgrants and subcontracts of [U.S. government]-funded efforts [to be] eligible for the program,” among other things. InterAction provided Government Executive with a report from the Association of Wartime Allies with estimates of SIV and P-2 populations; however, it does not include employees of subcontractors or subgrantees.
“While we have been clear that while our first priority is getting American citizens out who wish to leave, we are doing everything in our power to also evacuate embassy staff members, SIV applicants and other at-risk Afghans,” said a State Department spokesperson in a statement to Government Executive. “On August 15, the State Department stood up the Afghans at Risk Task Force to identify at-risk Afghan partners who do not qualify for SIV, P-1, or P-2,” which Amb. Christine Elder is leading. The task force “is working intensively with U.S. interagency and non-governmental partners to address needs of the most at-risk Afghan civil society.”
During a briefing on Wednesday, Defense Department officials were asked about the situation for those ineligible for SIVs or P1/P2 visas.
“We know there are a lot of desperate people who want to leave, and that's why we are working as fast as we can,” said Pentagon Spokesman John Kirby. “I can't begin to try to give you specific advice on what these individuals ought to do. I certainly would encourage them to reach out to the State Department. I know my answer is unsatisfying and I apologize for that... Believe me, we're very mindful of the plight here and we're trying the best we can to alleviate that.”
Even for those who are eligible to be evacuated, there have been some challenges and complications.
David Berteau, president and CEO of the Professional Services Council, which represents over 400 member companies who contract with the federal government, spoke with Federal News Network about the process to help employees of U.S. contractors evacuate. The eligibility criteria are “complicated” and there are several “hang ups” along the way, he said.
“There’s also the issue of subcontractors. What if you work for a subcontractor?,” said Berteau. “To you, you thought you were working for company X, but in reality, you were working for an Afghan company that in many cases is no longer in existence. And so, all of these are issues that we’re trying to work through. The main objective, though, is to identify the people, keep them safe, get them out of the country, and get them into the process.”
Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili, founding director of Center for Governance and Markets at the University of Pittsburgh who previously worked for the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit and U.S. Agency for International Development, told Government Executive on Wednesday that since early August the center has been helping 3,000 Afghans obtain work verifications for P-2 visas.
“We have people from government agencies and contractors and NGOs coming to us” asking for help because they are having trouble understanding the system and determining who is eligible, she said. The system “is cumbersome, it’s bureaucratic. It’s a representation of all of the dysfunction that we see in so many parts of government.”
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