Afghan refugees are seen piled into a U.S. Air Force transport plane at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 15, 2021, during the U.S. withdrawal from the country after 20 years of war. File Photo via U.S. Air Force/UPI | License Photo
July 19 (UPI) -- The United States is streamlining its Special Immigrant Visa application process for Afghans, senior administration officials said as tens of thousands who have already applied are still being processed.
The SIV program offers U.S. visas to Afghans who worked with the U.S. Armed Forces as translators or interpreters during its 20-year war in the Middle Eastern country.
President Joe Biden's administration has been criticized over its handling of the SIV program since the U.S. exit last summer as thousands who fled the Taliban have now been stuck in the bureaucratic pipeline.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced in a joint statement that, beginning this week, SIV applicants will no longer need to send separate petitions for Special Immigration Status to each of their offices.
Starting Wednesday, new applicants, as well as the majority of those currently in the application process, will only be required to send one petition, known as the DS-157, to the State Department, the officials said.
"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," Blinken and Mayorkas said, adding that the change will not reduce "any of the robust security vetting processes required before the benefit is granted."
In a teleconference with reporters on Monday, a senior administration official said the change will decrease application times by about a month while easing the administrative burden on applicants.
"I think what we anticipate seeing is the major impact here is that it'll be a lot easier for applicants as well," the official said.
Since the United States withdrew from Afghanistan while evacuating more than 130,000 at-risk citizens under Operation Allies Welcome, Biden's administration has allowed some 80,000 into the United States, more than 71,000 of whom have been given work visas.
However, another senior official told reporters that as of last week there were 74,274 principal applicants needing to be processed including those who have yet to receive chief of mission approval, a crucial step in which between 40-50% of applicants are turned down due to missing documentation or other reasons.
The State Department is also monitoring around 10,000 applicants who have received their chief of mission approval and are preparing documents to relocate, the official said.
That number does not account for family members who have been included on their forms, which is estimated to increase the number of SIVs by between 45,000 to 50,000.
Officials said that by removing the 19-page I-360 petition form, the application process will become easier for applicants without jeopardizing safety.
"The information that's contained in the new form is what is needed and what's been determined to be needed by the various agencies involved," the official said. "There were a lot of redundancies in the previous process that will be eliminated in this."
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III (L) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark A. Milley deliver remarks about the end of the 20-year military mission in Afghanistan at the Pentagon, in Arlington, Va., on September 1. Photo by Ken Cedeno/UPI | License Photo