Earlier this year, the Biden administration announced that the United States would withdraw its remaining 2,500 troops from Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. By early August, most of the U.S. forces had left the country. During this time, Taliban forces executed a swift and successful campaign, gaining control of the country, culminating on August 15, by taking the capital city of Kabul. As the Taliban took control, the Biden administration has scrambled to evacuate thousands of U.S. citizens, embassy staff, Afghan allies, and refugees stranded in Afghanistan through the Kabul airport without a coherent strategy or a plan of action.
On August 20, BPC hosted an event with members of Congress who had served in the region. They recommended putting aside partisan rhetoric to focus on assisting Afghans who have been integral to U.S. operations in Afghanistan. The Biden administration’s evacuation process over the past two weeks has been chaotic and deadly for those trying to escape, further compounded by Thursday’s horrific terrorist attack. The evacuation effort ended on August 30, with the U.S. withdrawal, but there are still operational hurdles and challenges to processing evacuees.
In 2009, Congress passed the Afghan Allies Act, which provided 7,500 Special Immigrant Visas for Afghans who worked and served alongside U.S. troops in Afghanistan. In subsequent years, Congress renewed the program in 2014, 2015, and 2016. After the Biden administration announced in April its planned military withdrawal from Afghanistan, Congress passed the Averting Life and Injury by Expediting SIVs Act of 2021 (ALLIES Act) with overwhelming bipartisan support. Since 2014, the SIV program has designated a total of 27,000 visas for Afghans, including visas for surviving spouses or children of Afghans who aided the U.S. military. Furthermore, Congress made available $1 billion for the SIV program, including $500 million for emergency transportation, housing, and other services for Afghans leaving the country.
However, even as Congress took bipartisan action to alleviate the backlogs by increasing the number of SIV visas by 8,000, the program has been plagued with delays and difficulties. Currently, the backlog in the SIV visa program stands at 18,000 for principal applicants alone. When including spouses and children in that backlog, the real number of people awaiting processing could be around 80,000. Even before the need for a rapid removal of refugees and allies from Afghanistan arose, the United States faced hurdles in processing and vetting refugees. For example, SIV visa applicants already undergo an acute vetting and bureaucratic application process consisting of a lengthy, redundant, and cumbersome 14-step application process which sometimes made SIVs nearly impossible to obtain.
While the SIV program only applies to those who directly worked with the U.S military, Afghans who have been involved with the U.S. government in civil occupations and other Afghans who worked for U.S.-based media or non-governmental organizations and meet certain requirements will now qualify for the Priority 2 visa designation.1 According to the International Rescue Committee, there are around 300,000 Afghan civilians who have been associated with the U.S. mission in Afghanistan and may require evacuation before the United States’ complete withdrawal at the end of this month. Recently, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas extended humanitarian parole, an immigration rule that allows the United States to admit individuals without a visa, to ramp up evacuations for at-risk Afghans.
With an urgent need for mass evacuations, the State Department and the Department of Defense began running flights from the Kabul airport to military bases in the Middle East and Europe. Many countries in Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East let American flights transit through with rescued American and Afghan passengers. Over 116,000 Afghans were evacuated by the U.S. and its allies during the mass evacuation before the U.S. withdrew on August 30, at a pace of roughly 20,000 evacuations per day. Operationally, much is unknown about how the refugees, SIVs, and other Afghans seeking protection are being processed in Kabul or elsewhere since escaping the country.
Once evacuees made it inside the airport after initial screening at the gate, the major bottleneck presented itself: vetting and security screening. The military only evacuated Afghans who had completed “a certain stage of the security-vetting procedure,” according to State Department spokesman Ned Price, though it is unclear what that stage is. Some vetting was completed at the Kabul airport—officials at the airport were processing at least some visas and biometric data there. However, thousands of people were being put on flights before their background vetting was completed, with U.S. agencies continuing security screenings while flights were in the air. Many Afghans allowed on flights had already applied for SIVs, though not all.
Vetting and processing evacuated Afghan refugees and SIVs due to concerns surrounding security and threats has also remained a challenge. The Biden administration has maintained that they plan to carry out adequate vetting processes before Afghan refugees enter the United States, though it is unclear exactly what screening processes they will undergo. President Biden stressed that screening processes are being carried out in airports overseas once the refugees have been evacuated and before they enter the United States. According to the administration, refugees are completing their paperwork and undergoing background checks at transit centers in Qatar, Germany, Kuwait, and Spain.
Screening processes at overseas temporary staging bases have included checking evacuees’ biometric data and biographic security screening by U.S intelligence, law, and counter-terrorism professionals. However, processing the large number of refugees and integrating various databases is challenging and laborious. Any time there is a red flag, it requires that personnel clear or confirm it, and many red flags can appear throughout the process. For example, a visa applicant may have talked to the Taliban, and an official must determine under what conditions the applicant did so. Clearing red flags like this necessitates manual checks, like contacting their employer or section chief. So, though there are efforts being made to speed up the process, parts of the vetting and screening operation remain slow. So far U.S. security officials have flagged over 100 Afghans for additional screening, with many cleared upon follow-up inspections.
Concerns about COVID screening have also been raised, as multiple situations in the process do not allow for proper transmission mitigation. Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said that there are several COVID screening points in the process, but conceded that they were mainly for people who were symptomatic or “feeble,” suggesting that people with asymptomatic cases are not being screened.
Overseas airports where the refugees are being temporarily held before they make their journey to the U.S. bases face other logistical and operational hurdles. Leaked emails from the Doha airport have exposed dire living conditions for refugees awaiting processing, including lack of a secure and sanitary environment. Reports have shown Afghan evacuees awaiting processing in sweltering Doha airport hangers where temperatures reach 94 degrees at night. Some evacuees have expressed feeling stranded with no further information on where they will be going next or when they are expected to be processed.
Many evacuees have conveyed a sense of frustration on not knowing how their journey will pan out. The Biden administration has reached out to several countries willing to house Afghan refugees. Some countries were initially hesitant to take refugees, citing security and COVID-19 health concerns. However, several nations have stepped forward to welcome those fleeing the country, including the United Kingdom, Canada, India, and Germany, among others. However, this has meant evacuees are uncertain where they might end up when they leave Afghanistan, adding stress to an already precarious situation.
In an effort to speed processes at all points of the journey, the administration asked employees from US Citizenship and Immigration Services to volunteer for assignments to support the processing of Afghan relocations. This represents an attempt to surge resources and capacity to the places where processing is occurring. But USCIS’ capacity is already stretched, and it’s not clear how effective this surge in processing capacity has been.
The Department of Defense has designated three military bases in the United States as landing venues to process refugees on the last leg of the journey. Most recently, the State Department confirmed that Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey is receiving refugees. The Department of Defense also assigned Fort McCoy in Wisconsin to be included in the list of bases where Afghan refugees are being processed, along with Fort Bliss in Texas and Fort Lee in Virginia. The Pentagon has confirmed that there is no guarantee that the bases will reach their 21,000 total occupancy capacity.
Consular Affairs, the State Department’s visa-issuing authority, already has a backlog of more than 500,000 immigrant visa applications and millions for non-immigrant visas (including student visas). COVID-19 has contributed to the massive backlog, as has a low number of staff—during the Trump administration, more than 400 employees quit or retired; many who quit or retired were visa officers. Since Consular Affairs is self-funded (it uses the fees generated from visa appointments to fund itself), the pause in visa appointments due to COVID has led to a massive dip in revenue for the bureau. The State Department reported a loss of $1.4 billion in revenue in 2020 as a result of the pandemic. USCIS is also running at a revenue loss—they narrowly avoided massive furloughs last year by making spending cuts, including a hiring freeze, which has led to increased backlogs and processing times. The backlog extends to green cards; about 100,000 green cards are at risk of being lost this year in the backlog, and more than 1.2 million people are waiting in line to obtain their green cards (many have been waiting for years). The diversion of resources that will be necessary to process and approve SIVs is likely to stress an already exhausted and overburdened system, exacerbating the backlogs.
The infrastructure designed to resettle refugees was also downsized under the Trump administration, leaving it with much lower capacity to process and resettle refugees than before. President Donald Trump cut the annual presidential determination each year: from 45,000 for fiscal year 2018, to 30,000 for FY2019, to 15,000 for FY2020. In FY2020, only 11,800 refugees were admitted, which marked a historic low. Continued cuts to the annual presidential determination led to a collapse of the system; nonprofits that focus on resettling refugees were forced to close offices and lay off staff as numbers plummeted. Ultimately, cuts compelled more than 100 local resettlement sites to suspend services or shut down entirely. Leaders of resettlement agencies and State Department officials warned that it would take time to rebuild the system and ramp up capacity after years of low resettlement numbers. After the Biden administration raised the cap to 62,500 in May of this year, a State Department official cautioned that the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program was “even more decimated than we thought” after a review, and required “major overhaul” to build back capacity. This infrastructure for settling refugees, which still needs time to rebuild, is now in charge of handling the massive influx of Afghan refugees and may not have the capacity needed.
The already backlogged asylum system has only fallen further behind as the number of migrants crossing the southern border has grown. As of April, more than 386,000 asylum seekers were in the backlog at USCIS, and immigration courts face their own backlog of more than 1.3 million cases (up from 186,000 in 2009). Immigration courts were also on a year long pause from hearing cases due to COVID. Funding for refugee resettlement is already tight from handling the situation at the southern border—earlier this year, Health and Human Services re-routed more than $2 billion intended for other health initiatives (including expanded COVID testing and rebuilding of the Strategic National Stockpile) to cover the care of unaccompanied immigrant children.
The presidential determination for refugee admissions that sets the refugee cap each year is also split by regional allocations, which some experts think may slow the process for relocated Afghans. After some furor, President Biden set the refugee cap for FY2021 at 62,500 (up from a proposed 15,000). The regional allocations for FY2021 are as follows: 22,000 for Africa, 6,000 for East Asia, 4,000 from Europe and Central Asia, 5,000 from Latin America and the Caribbean, 13,000 from the Near East and South Asia, and 12,500 for unallocated reserve.
The Afghan refugee crisis is a testament to the United States’ need for proactive migration management policies and resources. Even before this current crisis, the United States has for years lacked a sustainable immigration infrastructure that can effectively respond to migration surges. This has led charity organizations, non-profits, and private agencies to bear the brunt of migration emergencies, often with very limited resources.
BPC has previously proposed a flexible and nimble “immigration FEMA” strategy that can respond to dramatic shifts in migrant flows. This type of strategy, using a National Response Framework relying on inter-agency coordination, is more relevant now than ever. The Biden administration is currently beset by major migration episodes. One thing that the past decade should teach us is that extraordinary migration events are not an anomaly, but rather the norm and that we should prepare accordingly.
1 There are currently three categories of individuals who can access the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP), known as “priorities.” All three categories undergo the same processing steps, including extensive security vetting. Priority 1 are individual cases referred by designated entities such as embassies, designated NGOs, or the UNHCR. They are referred because of their circumstances and apparent need for resettlement. Priority 2 are groups of special interest designated by the State Department by virtue of their circumstances and apparent need for resettlement. Priority 3 are individual cases being reunified with family members already in the United States.