• August 17, 2021

“There is no clarity.” An attorney helping Afghan refugees cope with US visa failures. – Mother Jones

Sarah Silbiger / Bloomberg via Getty Images

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The government of Afghanistan collapse Sunday brought an unceremonious end to the longest war in American history. Also, with surprising speed and clarity, he pointed out the to get back from the Taliban to power after two decades of guerrilla warfare against the United States and its allies. A newly-controlled Afghanistan by the Taliban poses an enormous threat to Afghan women, human rights activists and the legions of Afghans who supported the US military effort, such as translators, cooks and cleaners.

Few Americans understand the plight of America’s Afghan allies as clearly as the lawyers who are working to evacuate them. Julie Kornfeld, a senior attorney with the International Refugee Assistance Project, told me that her organization represents more than 150 Afghan citizens seeking to leave the country. Many of them have applied to enter the United States through the Special immigrant visa program, which has been haunted by delays and other bureaucratic problems since its inception.

The program’s problems, which Kornfeld attributes to a lack of staffing, adequate training and funding, have had a catastrophic impact on Afghans who are now under threat of retaliation from the Taliban. “There is no organization, there is no clarity,” he said. “It seems that no one really knows what is going on.”

His clients, which include men and women in their 20s to 70s, include Afghan support personnel as well as people who did not work for the US military, but who believe in its mission and support a democratic Afghanistan. These support personnel who played a central role in assisting the US military presence in Afghanistan, but are now fighting for refuge in the United States. “With their job or their actions, they have already risked their lives supporting the mission of the United States and the democracy of Afghanistan,” he said. “But now that the Taliban take control, those who supported democracy are at risk.”

I spoke to Kornfeld about his clients, the visa approval process, and the knock-on effects of the Biden administration’s disorderly withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The special immigrant visa program for Afghan citizens has come under substantial criticism in the past year. Who would you blame the most for the problems plaguing the show?

It is a problem of slowness and inefficiency. Although Congress, in 2009, created the Special Immigrant Visa Program and, by law, established that the application must take nine monthsI have yet to see one of my clients’ requests take nine months. In fact, I’ve had clients who have been waiting a decade.

This is a problem that the government does not prioritize resources to efficiently adjudicate these requests. It comes from a lack of staff. It comes from a lack of money. And it comes from a lack of training.

It appears that the Biden administration was slow to not only process these visas, but also to address concerns about the process as the withdrawal was ongoing.

When biden done the announcement that the previous administration was going to affirm commitment To withdraw our troops, one of my clients watched with great anticipation, waiting for Biden to mention the Afghan allies and what he was going to do to prioritize their safety. In that speaks, did not mention the Afghan SIVs. And again, that is an example of how this government and previous administrations have not prioritized this process. But since that announcement, because of the promotion and because of the humanitarian crisis that has been unfolding, more attention has been paid. With that, the staffing has increased. There has been new legislation that has expanded the eligibility requirements for special immigrant visas, as well as opened additional avenues.

While there are more people, these people are not well trained and unable to keep up with changes in the law. For example, as a lawyer, I will receive responses from the National Visa Center that do not respond to the actual query or that provide me with outdated information. SIV’s eligibility law changed two weeks ago, and I have seen the NVC respond to a query that tells me that a customer requires two years of service when they now only require 12 months.

Once the Taliban started to advance through Afghanistan, finally reaching Kabul, how has your organization’s work been affected?

It is important to go back and recognize that the Taliban have been making and updating their threats for years. For example, in early to mid-January, one of my clients whom I have been representing since 2017 but who was in the SIV process since 2010 was assassinated by the Taliban. What we are seeing in the last 48 hours is only [an] increased presence and control of the Taliban over a country. Where I am going with that is to think that my client who was murdered in January is not going to be the only client that I have represented who has been murdered. I fear for the safety of all my clients now and am concerned that their fate will succumb to the Taliban as opposed to the United States government.

The Biden administration’s withdrawal process has been the subject of substantial criticism recently. How would you characterize the way the administration has handled this retreat, which from afar appears to be extremely chaotic?

I think the word you just used is exactly the right one: “chaotic.” One of the reasons it is chaotic is because they have not prioritized this program and the support they would give the Afghan people. They have also made belated decisions about who to protect and now everyone is flying out of the seat of their pants. There is no organization, there is no clarity. It seems that no one really knows what is going on.

That is extremely difficult as a legal advocate, but not just for me. My clients are hearing things in the media, they are hearing things that government officials say about different avenues. It drains my clients’ attention and resources and gives them false hope. The government should not only make general statements, but should provide details, policies and procedures on how people can update the promises that the government makes. For example, a refugee program was created to supplement the SIV program two weeks ago. But we are still waiting for clear guidance on how people can apply for that program or get admitted to the program. It seems that an employer has to refer you to the program. But, as far as I know, no references have been made so far.

What people need to understand is that in a humanitarian crisis, in situations of terror, people look for any potential light at the end of the tunnel. That’s what keeps them going. And when we provide little bits of hope, little bits of information, but [don’t] illustrate details, which leaves room for misinformation. That leaves room for possible types of people taking advantage of others and creates an even more desperate situation than the one we are already living in.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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