State Department expands eligibility for refugee program for Afghans

Washington — The State Department is expanding opportunities for Afghans who are at-risk and their families to resettle in the United States, it announced Monday, amid a rise in violence by the Taliban as the U.S. troop withdrawal nears its conclusion at the end of the month.

The State Department said it is widening eligibility for Afghans for refugee resettlement from Afghanistan to include those who work or worked for a U.S. government-funded program, as well as current and former employees of U.S.-based media organizations and nongovernmental organizations. Afghans who didn’t work long enough to qualify for a Special Immigrant Visa but were contractors, local staff, interpreters or translators for the government or military are also now eligible for resettlement.

“The U.S. objective remains a peaceful, secure Afghanistan,” the State Department said. “However, in light of increased levels of Taliban violence, the U.S. government is working to provide certain Afghans, including those who worked with the United States, the opportunity for refugee resettlement to the United States.”

The State Department said the change will expand the opportunity to resettle in the U.S. to “many thousands of Afghans and their immediate family members who may be at risk due to their U.S. affiliation.”

Senior State Department officials told reporters that applicants have to be referred by their employer to become eligible, and processing begins once they are outside Afghanistan and in a third country. The U.S. will not assist with relocation, the officials said, and security screening for applicants that occurs through the refugee program can take between 12 to 14 months.

The Biden administration launched “Operation Allies Refuge” last month to support the relocation of Afghans who helped the U.S. during the 20-year war and now are under threat from the Taliban.

On Friday, the first group of roughly 200 Afghan Special Visa applicants who were evacuated from their homeland arrived in the U.S. and are set to complete the visa process at Fort Lee, Virginia. Among the group, who have undergone the most security vetting, are former translators who aided U.S. forces.

Roughly 750 Afghans and their families are expected to come to the U.S. in the coming weeks as part of the Biden administration’s efforts, while about 20,000 Afghans are looking to relocate to the U.S. through the Special Immigrant Visa program.

Olivia Gazis contributed to this report.