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US to Streamline Application Process for Afghan Special Immigrant Visas

FILE - Afghan refugees board a bus taking them to a processing center upon their arrival at Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Virginia, Sept. 1, 2021.
FILE - Afghan refugees board a bus taking them to a processing center upon their arrival at Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Virginia, Sept. 1, 2021.

U.S. officials announced Monday a change to the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) process for Afghans in which applicants will need to file only one form so that applications can go through a single government agency, senior officials told reporters.

Beginning July 20, new applicants — some in the SIV pipeline — will no longer need to send a separate petition to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for special immigrant status, which means the complete process is now overseen by the State Department.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a joint statement, "This new streamlined process, which is part of our ongoing efforts to make the program more efficient, will help to eliminate barriers for applicants and reduce application times."

After nearly 20 years of war, the U.S. and its allies left Afghanistan in August 2021, helping to evacuate more than 130,000 Afghans in the chaotic last weeks in Kabul.

Many of those Afghans hoped for a life in the U.S. The SIV program, a decade-old special immigrant visa program, helps military interpreters and others who worked on government-funded contracts to move to the United States in a direct pathway to a permanent resident card, also known as green card.

In a call with reporters, Biden administration officials said the changes can reduce processing times by "about a month."

"We do anticipate that, at a minimum, this change in process will shave about a month off of the adjudication time, but even more importantly, I think, ease a great administrative burden on the visa applicant. So, the process from the U.S. government side can be eased by a month or potentially more. … It’ll be a lot easier for the applicants as well," a senior government official said.

The call was held on background, and Biden officials asked to attribute answers to senior administration officials. Representatives from the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services answered the questions from members of the media.

Biden officials said there are 74,274 applicants in the SIV pipeline, excluding spouses and children. Of those, 10,096 principal applicants have already received the chief of mission approval — a crucial step in the SIV application. Including family members of those who have received that approval, a senior government official said they estimate 45,000 to 50,000 SIV recipients.

SIV applications usually move through a lengthy 14-step application process, which requires specific criteria to be met. The process, including decision-making and approval, takes an average of three years. The applicant must receive the visa before entering the United States.

In the call, Biden officials said although all new Afghan SIV applicants — and most of the applicants already in the pipeline — will no longer be required to submit a separate 19-page form to USCIS, the "bottom line" is the United States will still need all necessary and required information to process someone’s SIV application.

"But it will be one form instead of two, and I think that the new, revised form that will be submitted to the State Department, while it still contains all of the critical information, I believe is a shorter form to fill out," said one senior official.

Various U.S. agencies were involved in determining what kind of information an applicant needs to submit in the new form.

"There were a lot of redundancies in the previous process that will be eliminated in this," a senior official said in the call.