The State Department is offering potential refugee status to new categories of Afghans who assisted the United States during the war in Afghanistan, including those who worked for news media and nongovernmental organizations.
The department said in an announcement on Monday that the action was meant to protect Afghans “who may be at risk due to their U.S. affiliation,” but who were not eligible for a special immigrant visa program that has begun to resettle thousands of Afghans and their family members.
The White House has been under heavy pressure to protect Afghans who worked with the U.S. military over the past 20 years and who may be in danger from Taliban reprisals as the United States withdraws its troops from Afghanistan. As the Taliban make territorial gains around the country, Biden administration officials and prominent members of Congress have grown increasingly concerned about the threat to Afghans with ties to the United States.
The first planeload of more than 200 Afghan interpreters, drivers and others who aided the U.S. military arrived last week in the Washington area for resettlement as part of a government initiative under two congressionally devised special visa programs.
Congress created the Special Immigrant Visa program to give refuge to Afghans and Iraqis who helped the U.S. military. But the State Department’s action on Monday reflects concern that the program still leaves vulnerable many Afghans with U.S. ties.
Last month, a coalition of news media organizations — including The New York Times, along with The Washington Post, ABC News, CNN, Fox News and several others — sent letters to President Biden and congressional leaders asking them to take more steps to protect Afghans who had worked as reporters, translators and support staff for U.S. outlets working in Afghanistan.
The letters noted that the Special Immigrant Visa program “does not reach those Afghans who have served U.S. news organizations. Yet they and their families face the same threat of retaliation from the Taliban, which views the American press as a legitimate target.”
The Taliban have “long conducted a campaign of threatening and killing journalists,” the letter pointed out, estimating that about 1,000 Afghans faced danger as a result of their journalistic affiliations.
The refugee program will also offer protection to Afghans who worked for U.S. government-funded programs and projects in the country, as well as nongovernmental organizations, which the Taliban have long targeted.
The State Department said that Afghans who did not meet the Special Immigrant Visa program’s minimum requirements for duration of service would also be eligible for potential refugee status.
Those eligible for the program would undergo “extensive security vetting” before they were permitted to resettle in the United States as refugees, the department said.
Even as it offers resettlement opportunities to new categories of Afghans, the United States continues working to protect thousands more who aided the military and are thus eligible for the Special Immigrant Visa program.
About 2,500 Afghans are being relocated to Fort Lee, Va., as part of an effort that the White House calls Operation Allies Refuge, to remove them from harm’s way as they complete their applications for visas and permanent resettlement in the United States.
Federal officials say that some 4,000 more Afghans who are midway through the application process will soon be flown to other countries, along with their immediate families, before those who are granted visas are brought to the United States.