Lawmaker Urges Watchdogs to Review Special Immigrant Visa Process for Afghans
The process has been scrutinized in the wake of the Taliban’s takeover and U.S. withdrawal.
A House Democrat is asking four watchdogs to conduct a joint investigation of the special immigrant visa process for Afghans. This has been in the spotlight and under much scrutiny in wake of the mass evacuation from Afghanistan in August as the United States withdrew troops and the Taliban took over.
Rep. Ami Bera, D-Calif., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, Central Asia and Nonproliferation, sent a letter to the State, Defense and U.S. Agency for International Development acting inspectors general and the special IG for Afghanistan reconstruction on Thursday, asking for a joint investigation into the special immigrant visa process in Afghanistan. It was first established in 2009 to help resettle those who assisted the U.S. military and government.
“Although the law requires SIV applications to be processed within nine months, the program has been plagued by backlogs leading to processing times that can last over three years,” Bera wrote. “These delays put our Afghan allies at an increased risk of facing violent retribution by the Taliban. I am interested in the IG community’s past and future oversight of the SIV program to identify where the United States succeeded, fell short and must improve to protect our allies.”
Specifically, the lawmaker would like the watchdogs to look at: the number of SIV applications received, approved and denied since 2009; the average time for processing applications; progress the State Department made in implementing recommendations its IG made in two June 2020 reports; any impact the coronavirus pandemic had on the SIV process; current location and status for all SIV applicants; the difference in outcomes for SIV applicants compared to those in the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program; and lessons or best practices learned over the years, among other things.
“I request that all agencies utilize existing audits while compiling the report to avoid duplicative efforts,” Bera said. He has been active on this issue since before the Taliban’s takeover.
One of the State IG reports referenced in the letter said that from fiscal 2009 to fiscal 2019, 18,471 special immigrant visas were issued. As of September 2019, 18,864 applications were still in progress. “The department’s staffing levels across its various offices that process Afghan SIVs have generally remained constant since 2016 and are insufficient to reduce the SIV applicant backlog,” said the report. “Similarly, staffing levels during the interagency and security check process contribute to delays.” Additionally, “the senior coordinating official position, which is intended to oversee and direct the Afghan SIV program, has been vacant since January 2017.”
This report and the other one referenced in the letter are dated Juned 2020, but were not publicly released until September 17, 2021.
Task & Purpose reported on Thursday about how “red tape and paperwork errors” have plagued the special immigrant visa process. Specifically for the recent evacuation process following the Taliban’s takeover, the State and Defense departments have been pointing fingers at each other, as Politico reported.
The Defense IG office confirmed it received the letter and is reviewing it. Related, the office recently announced investigations into the screening process for displaced persons from Afghanistan as well as “whether the DoD has adequately planned and provided support for the relocation of Afghan nationals.”
The USAID IG office is “actively coordinating with our counterparts on Afghanistan oversight plans and will work with the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction and the Offices of Inspectors General at the departments of State and Defense on plans for how best to meet the chairman’s request,” said the office. “We remain committed to ensuring effective oversight of foreign assistance programming in Afghanistan through audits, evaluations, investigations, and external outreach to promote accountability in both agency programs and among organizations receiving USAID funding.”
The SIGAR office declined to comment. The State IG office did not respond for comment.