The first group of Afghan applicants approved for special immigrant visas touched down and traveled to Fort Lee, Virginia, on Friday, according to the Biden administration. There were about 200 people on the flight, including applicants and their families, who were part of a priority group of 700 Afghan SIV applicants who have completed most of the background process required to obtain visas. Together with their families, they number around 2,500.
President Joe Biden said in a statement, “Today marks an important milestone as we continue to fulfill our promise to the thousands of Afghan citizens who have served shoulder to shoulder with American soldiers and diplomats over the past 20 years in Afghanistan.” “
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Afghans would complete “the remaining steps on their way to becoming America’s newest immigrant” at Fort Lee, adding that “it is my great pleasure to say to them: ‘Welcome to your new home. “
Blinken said the US would “continue to support the Afghan people in their pursuit of a just and lasting peace and to preserve the gains of the past 20 years, particularly those made by women, girls and minorities.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said about 300 US service members from multiple installations, under the direction of US Northern Command, are ready to provide logistics, temporary housing and medical support at Fort Lee. “We’ve talked many times about the moral obligation to help those who have helped us,” Austin said, “and we do our best to work closely with our interagency partners to meet that obligation.” Well committed.
‘They’re looking for us’
The Afghans on that flight are lucky. They represent an estimated 20,000 SIV applicants in line, some of whom told CNN they are terrified as they see the bloody executions of the Taliban and retaliation against those who helped American soldiers.
Naved has special forces allies “like, five or six”. [who] have been killed.” Asked whether he is living in fear, he says, “Totally.”
The fear of Taliban retaliation is being felt deeply across Afghanistan as the nearly two-decade US military operation in the country draws to a close, leaving thousands like Naveed in a bind. The process of applying for the SIV program to be able to immigrate to the United States can take years. And despite the Biden administration’s announcement in July that it was launching Operation Ally Asylum, questions remain about whether the US government will be able to move SIV applicants quickly.
Of the 20,000 people in the SIV pipeline, about 10,000 have just begun the process, the State Department said in recent weeks.
US officials have said they want to relocate some applicants to US military bases such as Fort Lee and even to third countries so that they can complete the application and withdrawal process in relative safety. However, applicants selected to take advantage of US evacuation flights will have to travel to Kabul on their own, despite the dangers such travel may exist as the Taliban have set up outposts across the country.
The Taliban recently came looking for Ramish, another interpreter who spoke to CNN. His family hid him. After constant searches by the Taliban, they burnt down Ramish’s house. The interpreter fled his hometown and traveled at midnight to Kabul, where he is trying to undergo the SIV procedure. Unable to get out, he said, “Our future will be bleak.”
Referring to reports that the Taliban are beheading Afghans working with US troops, Ramish says, “They are going to behead us too.”
Lawmakers united with non-profit groups to urge the Biden administration to do more for Afghans serving alongside US soldiers and diplomats, and to do it more quickly. Congress has come together in a rare bipartisan fashion to streamline the visa process for SIV applicants and increase the number of visas available – an initiative administration officials welcome.
“We have an exponentially growing number of Afghans working with the US military, while the State Department doesn’t even have visas, and the State Department is so supported at the moment that they can’t even speed it up,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a war veteran on the Armed Services Committee, told MSNBC on Thursday. “They’re looking at a backlog of two to four years.”
‘A Bull’s Eye’
Referring to the interpreters and translators, Duckworth said that, “he has bulls-eyes on his back, as well as his family members, and we need to get him out of harm’s way.”
As lawmakers and government officials work to secure SIV applicants in the US or a third country, nonprofit groups and individuals have also taken it upon themselves to help.
Army Captain Sayre Penn works with Ramish, whose house was set on fire, and encourages him to flee to Kabul.
“For me, it’s comrades-in-arms and an inestimable duty not to betray them,” Paine told CNN. “You put these people on a level with your family.”
Paine says that American troops could not operate on the ground without interpreters by their side. He feels angry at the thought of those who cannot make it out of the country. “All these people signing up for this promise, to literally come to the promised land and let it go, is a betrayal of those people,” he said.
Shinwari, the founder of “No One Left Behind,” told CNN that ever since Biden announced in April that the US would pull nearly all military forces from Afghanistan, “every day, there are hundreds and hundreds of people (there are) me on my Facebook.” texting, they’re calling me and they’re emailing me for help because they’re in a really bad shape right now.”
But leaving Afghanistan does not mean that one family is free from the threat of Taliban retaliation, Shinwari told CNN as he waited at Dulles International Airport to welcome another SIV family to the US. “No One Left Behind” helped the family relocate to America with the help of a grant that paid for their airfares.
“For most SIVs who are here because they still have their immediate family in Afghanistan, their brothers, sisters, their parents and their other relatives, if the Taliban or al Qaeda learns that a family member is in it. was involved. With the help of US forces in Afghanistan, they are going to kill the whole family.” “If they can’t catch the exact person, if they find out that person is here in the United States, they’ll go after their family. They’ll kill anyone in the family for revenge.”
CNN’s Michael Conte contributed to this report.