First evacuation flight for Afghan allies arrives in US

Kabul-to-Virginia flight is the first of new effort to resettle Afghans who aided U.S. military

Afghanistan War veteran Marc Silvestri, right, greets his former interpreter, Sabib Nooristani, as he arrives in Boston on June 15, 2020, after a seven-year wait for a special immigrant visa. Congress this week passed a bill to authorize thousands more visas for Afghan nationals who aided the U.S. military, part of a stepped-up effort by the Biden administration as it withdraws troops from Afghanistan. (Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Afghanistan War veteran Marc Silvestri, right, greets his former interpreter, Sabib Nooristani, as he arrives in Boston on June 15, 2020, after a seven-year wait for a special immigrant visa. Congress this week passed a bill to authorize thousands more visas for Afghan nationals who aided the U.S. military, part of a stepped-up effort by the Biden administration as it withdraws troops from Afghanistan. (Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Posted July 30, 2021 at 8:19am

The Biden administration announced the arrival of hundreds of Afghan special immigrant visa applicants in the U.S. as questions remain about thousands more still waiting in Afghanistan.

The first flight from Kabul to Fort Lee, Va., transporting around 200 SIV applicants and their immediate family members, arrived on Thursday, administration officials said on a call with reporters. That group, which comprised around 700 individuals overall, has already completed security vetting and is eligible to be resettled in the United States.

The flights are part of a wider effort by the administration, dubbed “Operation Allies Refuge,” to evacuate Afghans who helped the U.S. military effort during the war there and are likely to face persecution at the hands of the Taliban after U.S. troops are gone.

But around 20,000 more Afghan translators and other U.S. employees remain in Afghanistan as the U.S. reaches the end stages of its withdrawal. Officials said they are looking to move people who are farther back in the application process to a safe third country “in the coming weeks.”

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On a separate call last week, officials said around half of the 20,000 have not completed the initial steps of the application process, so they cannot yet be moved.

“We’re going to continue to work on this, we will continue to relocate eligible SIV applicants and their families who have our gratitude for their service,” Tracey Jacobson, a former ambassador who now leads the State Department’s Afghanistan coordination task force, told reporters Thursday.

Advocates have also raised concerns about Afghans who would not qualify for the SIV program’s narrow requirements but are still imperiled by the absence of U.S. troops — for example, women’s rights leaders and educators. Officials said those individuals should seek refugee status.

“U.S. Embassy Kabul can make referrals to the U.S. Refugee Admission Program for any Afghans who are well known to the embassy and have both imminent and compelling protection concerns,” Jacobson said. “This would, by definition, include women’s leaders, activists, human rights defenders, civil society, journalists.”

Meanwhile, Congress is scrambling to statutorily expand the Afghan SIV program, which has been beleaguered by lengthy backlogs and wait times that stretch for years.

A Capitol security spending supplemental spending bill that was cleared for President Joe Biden on Thursday will authorize 8,000 additional visas and provide over $1 billion in funds for the relocation efforts.

The measure also will reduce the employment requirement from two years to one, expand eligibility to family members of murdered applicants, and postpone the required medical exam until the applicant arrives in the U.S.