Biden administration expands resettlement eligibility for Afghans amid Taliban gains

But on Monday, the State Department said it had created a “Priority 2” designation for its U.S. Refugee Admissions Program that would expand the pool of Afghans eligible for relocation to the United States beyond those applying for Special Immigrant Visas.

The move aims to ensure the safety of “thousands of Afghans and their immediate family members who may be at risk due to their U.S. affiliation but who are not eligible for a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) because they did not have qualifying employment, or because they have not met the time-in-service requirement to become eligible,” according to the State Department.

Afghans eligible for resettlement in the United States under the Priority 2 designation include those “who do not meet the minimum time-in-service for a SIV but who work or worked as” employees of contractors, locally-employed staff, interpreters or translators for U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan or the U.S. government.

Also eligible are Afghans “who work or worked for a U.S. government-funded program or project in Afghanistan supported through a U.S. government grant or cooperative agreement,” as well as those “who are or were employed in Afghanistan by a U.S.-based media organization or non-governmental organization.”

However, these Afghans “are not going to be applying [to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program] once they get outside the country,” a senior State Department official said on Monday. Rather, “individuals can be referred by their employer — not directly, but through their employer — to us” at the State Department.

The official later explained that “there is a form that the employing organization needs to fill out and submit” to refer the Afghans to the State Department for processing.

Once that documentation is received and confirmed, the official continued, the State Department “will then reach out via email to say that [the applicant’s] case has now been referred to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, and to let them know how to reach us once they have gotten out of the country, so that we can start their casework.”

“They will basically have an email from us saying that we’re ready to receive them whenever they move,” the official said, noting that an applicant’s entire family “needs to be outside the country for us to process them.”

In a call with reporters, the official acknowledged “the difficulty of people getting out” of Afghanistan and the concerns with potential applicants “having to get out on their own.” But the official also defended the program as “meant to expand the aperture of people who have an opportunity to be resettled in the United States beyond the SIVs.”

“It is our attempt to try and offer an option for people … At this point in time, unfortunately, we do not anticipate relocating them. But we will continue to examine all the options,” the official said.

Another senior State Department official noted that the department has “already been in discussions with neighboring countries,” as well as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “to be prepared for potential outflows” of refugees from Afghanistan.

“So a place like Pakistan, it will be important that their borders remain open, obviously, if people go north,” this official said. “Or if they go via Iran to Turkey. We’ve already seen some arrivals in Turkey.”

The United States is in final talks to temporarily house a number of Afghan nationals and their families at U.S. military bases in Qatar and Kuwait. But those talks are believed to pertain to Special Immigrant Visa applicants, not necessarily the expanded pool of Afghans applying for resettlement under the Priority 2 designation.

Additionally, the United States has reached no such provisional agreements with Afghanistan’s neighbors — the countries to which the newly eligible Afghans will likely flee ahead of U.S. processing.

The State Department said in a statement that the decision to create the Priority 2 designation came “in light of increased levels of Taliban violence,” as the Islamist fundamentalist militia continues to make rapid advances across Afghanistan ahead of the full withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country this month.

The Taliban has recently escalated its fighting in Afghanistan’s urban areas, reportedly launching rockets at airports in Kandahar and Herat on Saturday. Of the country’s 407 districts, 219 have now fallen under Taliban control, and the group is contesting another 110, according to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

The State Department is already considering relocating a second round of Afghan interpreters to countries outside the United States under the Special Immigrant Visa program in August. This next group — comprised of roughly 4,000 Special Immigrant Visa applicants and their family members — could total as many as 20,000 people evacuated and eventually brought to the United States.