The Special Immigrant Visa is an immigration program that grants permanent residence to people who aided the U.S. government abroad.
In the wake of the United States’ departure from Afghanistan, thousands of refugees have been attempting to obtain Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs). The application process has been rife with obstacles and catch 22s. Those seeking to leave are being “carefully vetted,” leading to extreme delays.
The entire visa process should, according to the law, take no more than 9 months, but “the program has been plagued by backlogs leading to processing times that can last over three years,” said Representative Ami Bera, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, Central Asia and Nonproliferation.
With recent changes in policy, an additional 8,000 SIVs have been authorized. But what exactly is an SIV, and how does one go about getting one?
In this guide, we’ll provide a broad overview of SIVs, while answering some of the more frequently asked questions:
In this section, we’ll briefly cover some of the history of SIVs while outlining some basic definitions of the term.
The Immigration and Nationality Act
The “special immigrant” category was first instituted in 1965 as an amendment to the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) of 1952, replacing the older designation of “non quota immigrants.” Under current U.S. law, the term includes 11 distinct classifications, including the following:
- A lawful permanent resident returning from their trip abroad
- An immigrant employed by the U.S. government overseas who “performed faithful service” for 15 years
- An immigrant who served as a minister with a “bona fide nonprofit, religious organization in the United States”
- A Panamanian national (and their family), if they were employed by the Panama Canal Company or Canal Zone Government when the Panama Canal Treaty took place, and if their well-being was put at risk as a result of said treaty
As observed by a 2021 congressional report on SIVs, the above-mentioned classifications are linked by several themes. For instance, special immigrants may include:
- Those who have provided some form of public service, whether as an employee of a non-profit or the U.S. government
- Those whose lives have been put in danger as a result of their employment with the U.S. government or its affiliates
These commonalities are important for understanding the more recent interventions into the special immigrant program — namely the Iraqi and Afghan Special Immigrant Visas.
Iraqi and Afghan Special Immigrant Visa Programs
Over the years, SIVs have undergone a number of transformations. In 1990, for instance, the Immigration Act imposed an annual cap of 10,000 visas, and in 1991, that cap was changed to 7.1% of the worldwide level of employment-based immigration.
In 2006, Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), providing special immigrant status to Iraqi and Afghan translators working for the U.S. Armed Forces. Those granted SIVs were given lawful permanent residence upon entering the United States.
Subsequent legislation— namely, the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act (RCIA) of 2007 and the Afghan Allies Protection Act (AAPA) of 2009 — broadened the scope of the NDAA to include Iraqi and Afghan nationals generally employed by, or on behalf of, the U.S. government.
In 2015, an amendment was introduced to include Afghan employees of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). These employees must show that they provided off-base translation services or that they had been involved in potentially dangerous missions on behalf of the U.S. Armed Forces.
Over the years, the annual caps have fluctuated. The RCIA, for instance, started out with a cap of 5,000 visas. Congress added another 2,500 visas in 2014. No additional visas have been added since.
The Afghan SIV program has followed a different trajectory. Initially allotted 1,500 visas annually, this program has continued to grow. The recently passed Emergency Security Supplemental Appropriations Act (ESSAA) of 2021 provided an additional 8,000 SIVs, bringing the total to 34,500 visas since the end of 2014. Once all 34,500 visas have been granted, the program will effectively end, unless further action is taken.
For the purposes of clarity, the remainder of this guide will focus on the SIV program for Afghans.
Under the AAPA, Afghan nationals must meet certain requirements in order to be eligible for an SIV. In brief, the applicants must satisfy the following criteria:
- They must be an Afghan citizen
- They must be facing perpetual risk of harm due to their employment with the U.S. government
- They must have at least one year of employment with the U.S. government
- They must have been employed by or on behalf of the U.S. government; or alternatively, they must have been employed by the ISAF (or a successor mission) as a translator or as an assistant to the U.S. military
- They must be able to provide a letter of recommendation — written by their senior supervisor, their replacement, or another senior person
The deadline for applying is December 31st, 2023. Applicants may bring their spouse and unmarried children under the age of 21.
As mentioned above, the application process has not been easy or straightforward for Afghan nationals looking to leave their home country. In the following section, we will outline this process, highlighting the documents needed to obtain an SIV. There are roughly 5 steps:
- Obtaining Chief of Mission (COM) Approval
- Submitting a Petition to U.S. Citizenship and Immigrations Services (USCIS)
- Preparing the Visa Application
- Attending the Visa Interview
- Entering the United States
Chief of Mission Approval
To obtain Chief of Mission (COM) Approval, the applicant must provide the following documentation:
- A letter from the employer’s Human Resources department confirming the applicant’s year-long employment with the U.S. government
- A letter of recommendation written by a senior supervisor (ideally, a U.S. citizen) who knows the applicant — if that person is no longer in Afghanistan, a more senior person or the petitioner’s replacement may write the letter
- Form DS-157, known as the Supplemental Nonimmigrant Visa Application
- Proof of Afghan nationality — this may be a copy of the applicant’s passport, or an English translation of their Afghan identity card (known as a “taskera”)
- Biographical information, including full name, aliases, gender, and work location
- A copy of the petitioner’s employee badge
- A description of any threats received as a consequence of having been employed by the U.S. government
All of the requisite documents should be scanned as PDFs and emailed to AfghanSIVApplication@state.gov. For a more detailed explanation of the COM approval process, you can read the State Department guidelines.
After obtaining COM approval, you must provide the following documents as a part of your petition to USCIS:
- Form I-360, known as Petition for Amerasian, Widow(er), or Special Immigrant
- A copy of the COM approval containing confirmation that the applicant was employed for at least 1 year; that the applicant provided “faithful and valuable service”; and that they have experienced persistent threats due to their being employed by the U.S. government
- A copy of the letter of recommendation submitted for COM approval
- A copy of the petitioner’s passport, or an English translation of their taskera
- A copy of their departure/arrival record (Form I-94), if they’re filing from within the United States
To submit this petition, the applicant must scan and email all the above documents to NSCI360SIVAPP@uscis.dhs.gov. Alternatively, they may mail their documents to one of the following addresses:
- For normal mailing services
USCIS/ Nebraska Service Center (NSC)
P.O. Box 87485
Lincoln, NE 68501-748
- For overnight mailing services
USCIS/ Nebraska Service Center (NSC)850 “S” Street
Lincoln, NE 68508
Visa Application Preparation
Once the USCIS petition has been approved, the National Visa Center (NVC) will email the applicant asking them to submit English translations of the following documents:
- A copy of their passport’s biometric page — the passport must remain valid for at least one year following their visa interview
- Police certificates, only if the petitioner has lived in another country (other than Afghanistan) for more than a year since their 16th birthday
- Form DS-0234, known as the Special Immigrant Visa Biodata Form
- Form DS-260, known as the Immigrant Visa and Alien Registration Application
- Scanned copies of their taskera or birth certificate, in addition to any other documents substantiating the applicant’s familial relationships, including marriage certificates and adoption decrees, if applicable
- The Refugee Benefits Election Form
Each of the above must be submitted for both the applicant and their family members. Once the petitioner has sent these documents, NVC will schedule a visa interview.
The interview will be held at a U.S. consulate or embassy. NVC should work with the petitioner to find a location that the applicant can reach. The applicant must bring the following documents to the interview:
- A passport, valid for 6 months beyond the anticipated date of arrival in the United States
- Military photo ID, if possible
- Civilian Identification
- Relevant civil documents, such as marriage and death certificates, criminal records, and any documents sent to NVC
- Afghan machine-readable e-passports
- Written evidence of petitioner’s intent to travel immediately to the United States
- Two photos for each applicant — these must satisfy the State Department’s photo requirements
It is strongly recommended that the petitioner bring their family to the interview. If the family, for whatever reason, cannot attend, they will not be able to travel with the petitioner until they schedule another interview.
The petitioner is free to bring legal representation, if they see fit, but the U.S. government will not cover any lawyer fees. It’s important to note that normally a medical exam would be required, but under the ESSAA, applicants may obtain a medical waiver, as long as they meet all the above-stated requirements. The petitioner must, however, get a medical examination within 30 days of their arrival to the United States.
As mentioned above, the timeline for this application process should be 9 months, but the reality is much different. Many applicants have been waiting for years to gain approval. And after recent events, there is no longer an operational embassy in Afghanistan. This means applicants will likely have to travel to another country to attend their interview.
Under this program, there are no filing fees associated with the visa application process. That being said, the petitioner will have to cover any travel expenses or lawyer fees associated with the application. They will also have to cover the cost of the medical exam.
In this section, we’ll address some questions that might arise during or before the application process.
What’s a successor mission?
In 2015, the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission (RSM) replaced the ISAF and was designated a “successor mission.” Anyone who has worked for RSM, or other successor missions, is potentially eligible, providing they meet all other requirements.
What if I’m a contract employee and it’s not possible to get a letter of recommendation from a U.S. citizen?
In this case, you should get a letter of recommendation from your non-U.S. citizen supervisor. That letter should then be co-signed by the U.S. citizen overseeing the contract. The co-signer must indicate that, based on their relationship with the non-U.S. citizen supervisor, they believe the letter to be accurate. They must also confirm that the petitioner is, as far as they know, not a security threat.
What should the letter of recommendation contain?
The recommendation should contain the following information:
- Full name
- Date of birth
- Badge number
- Job title and location
- Verification that the letter was written by the applicant’s supervisor, or a more senior person
- Supervisor’s name, title, phone number, and professional and personal email address
- Dates for when the supervisor started supervising the applicant and when they stopped supervising the applicant
- A statement confirming that the petitioner was a faithful and valuable employee
- A description of any threats posed to the applicant as a consequence of their employment
- An opinion as to whether the petitioner would be a security threat
- A description of the applicant’s duties, to determine whether they satisfy the requirements of the SIV