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U.S. Special Immigrant Visa Program Faces Criticism Over Slow Speed


While U.S. forces are withdrawing from Afghanistan, thousands of Afghan interpreters, contractors and personnel who help the U.S. military remain. Many fear for their lives as Taliban forces continue to strengthen their foothold. The U.S. has a system for helping these people get out of Afghanistan. It's called the Special Immigrant Visa Program. President Biden mentioned it during his remarks today at the White House and said more help is coming. More than 10,000 Afghans remain in limbo. James Miervaldis is chairman of the nonprofit organization No One Left Behind. It works to expedite the process of bringing Afghans who assisted the U.S. military to the United States.


JAMES MIERVALDIS: Thank you very much.

CHANG: So your work directly involves trying to get people out of Afghanistan. As things have gotten worse in the last several days, how difficult has it been for people to leave? What's your vantage point?

MIERVALDIS: Yes, ma'am. Actually, so we've been advocating for changes to the SIV program for over eight years. And we've been doing this through three administrations, seven Congresses, seven secretaries of defense. And now we're on our fifth secretary of state. So this - yeah, it's been a very frustrating avenue. We're very happy with the bipartisan support from both sides of the aisle in the Congress. But even with that unprecedented level of just interest and enthusiasm to get this right, the 14-step process was still taking about three and a half years. And obviously with the evacuation, that - we don't have that time.

And so things are going very, very poorly. And the last thing I'll just say on that - we were - we are coordinating everything with the State Department. But that said, we had dozens of SIV recipients, the interpreters who had their visas in hand and were waiting for the embassy to reach out to them about what evacuation flights they'd be on. They never heard from the embassy, so we started flying them out commercially on our own dime. Each family is about $10,000. So when the president said today that - he made a comment that Afghans may have wanted to stay in Afghanistan. The translators may want to stay there. We...

CHANG: Do you take issue with that? I wanted to ask you that question. Is that your understanding - that many Afghan interpreters and other people who assisted the U.S. military actually didn't want to be evacuated earlier? What is your understanding?

MIERVALDIS: I know, ma'am. We strongly disagree with that assessment.

CHANG: How many people are we talking about right now who are currently stuck in Afghanistan? These are Afghan interpreters and other personnel who have helped the U.S. the last 20 years. About what is the volume of people we're talking about right now?

MIERVALDIS: Sure. As of last - or maybe about two weeks ago, the total number of applicants was over 20,000. So there was...


MIERVALDIS: ...A flood of applicants that started in the first part of this very serpentine, bureaucratic, paper-based interagency process. Again, 14 steps where - that takes about three years. And we never saw that timeline get any faster. What's interesting is by law, it's only supposed to take nine years. And some great organizations like IRAP sued the government last year and won in U.S. district court about the timeline - the State Department not following the timeline. And then nothing happened. The government provided an adjudication plan but provided no reports about whether recommendations were being audited. Additionally - or acted on. And additionally, the State Department OIG provided a report to Congress last June citing all these issues, and nothing was acted on. It's just...

CHANG: May I ask...


CHANG: What danger do you believe that these people are in because they have been unable to evacuate the country so far?

MIERVALDIS: We at No One Left Behind went through six years of emails and Facebook messages. We identified over 300 instances of interpreters or their family members specifically being targeted and killed by the Taliban or other extremist groups because of their affiliation with the United States. So there is a retribution campaign, an effort to...


MIERVALDIS: Yeah, exact revenge.

CHANG: That is James Miervaldis with the nonprofit organization No One Left Behind.

Thank you so much.

MIERVALDIS: Thank you, ma'am.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRUCE BRUBAKER'S "OPENING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Casey Morell (he/him) is an associate producer/director of All Things Considered.