In Afghanistan, the Taliban targets Afghans working for the Americans. To protect these individuals, the U.S. government has promised visas to its Afghan employees, after at least two years of faithful and valuable service.

But last week, the U.S. State Department confirmed that, as of March 1, 2017, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul has stopped scheduling interviews for Afghans applying for the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV). On its website, it claimed “there are enough applicants in the final stages of the visa process to exhaust all remaining visa numbers.”

So even though the program was reauthorized for four years by Congress in December 2016, it will soon come to a halt. The State Department wrote in its monthly visa bulletin last week that it expects all authorized visas to run out by June.

Congress authorized 1,500 visas for fiscal year 2017. As of March 5, 1,437 visas were available for more than 15,000 Afghans who had started the application process, a State Department official told Voice of America last Friday.

“This devastating development means that thousands of trusted allies will remain in danger, waiting for Congress to allocate visas that were clearly needed months ago,” Betsy Fisher, the Policy Director at the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) wrote in a press release on March 9.

Supporters of the SIV program had already sounded the alarm last December when Congress failed to authorize enough visas to meet the demand. “Our worst fears are proving true,” Fisher said.

The New York Times suggested, last week, that the decision to freeze interviews could also be related to President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration. Though Afghanistan is not included in Trump’s ban against six Muslim-majority countries, this will likely affect the number of Afghans who can immigrate to the United States.
In its March 9 press release, IRAP asked that Congress immediately authorize at least 2,500 additional visas. That same day, U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) announced on her website that she would introduce legislation for more visas. “Thousands of Afghans have put themselves, and their families, at risk to help our soldiers and diplomats accomplish the U.S. mission and return home safely. Breaking our promise to keep them safe would be a stain on our nation’s honor and jeopardizes local support in both this, and future, missions,” she wrote.

Last year, Shaheen and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) failed to pass an amendment for 4,000 additional visas, after Republican lawmakers blocked the legislation. The 1,500 visas compromise took months to reach.

Applicants usually wait for at least three to seven years for their SIVs and many fail to receive documentation, despite threats to their lives. Many applicants have been waiting for visas, while in hiding, unable to work and struggling to support family members, who themselves are sometimes targeted by the Taliban.

Halting the Afghan SIV program, both NGOs and veterans say, will make it harder to recruit locals in war zones. The decision to stop interviews will, as such, leave U.S. troops with fewer interpreters in Afghanistan and also, likely, in places like Syria.

As the United States is losing the war in Afghanistan, it would be counterintuitive and dangerous for Republicans to fail to add more visas immediately.

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