How Will We Determine Which Afghans Can Come to America?

How Will We Determine Which Afghans Can Come to America?

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While our withdrawal from Afghanistan is now complete, there remains uncertainty about the future for Afghans we evacuated from the country and those who may still want to leave. Some already have visas secured or are midway through the legal process of acquiring one. And many more will use the asylum or refugee systems to build a new life in the US or another country.

Our immigration laws are a complex web, but there are several clear pathways for Afghans who worked with our forces and our government during the conflict to relocate here—as well as for those who are otherwise at risk now that the Taliban is in charge. Here’s what you need to know about the resettlement process to come.

Because of the special circumstance surrounding the Afghanistan evacuations, there are multiple immigration channels open to specific groups of Afghans. Each of these were in place well before the United States left the country and are part of the ordinary immigration system.

Visas for Those Who Worked with Us: Special Immigrant Visas (SIV) are available to Afghans who worked directly for the United States government, either with our military forces or other government agencies. They must have been directly employed by the United States government or have worked on behalf of the government, typically as contractors. To be eligible for this visa, Afghans are required to have completed at least one year of employment with or on behalf of the government and must solicit letters of recommendation from American personnel. While the system has certainly faced challenges in expeditiously processing applications for those who are eligible, it remains a crucial entryway for those who worked with us on the ground over the past two decades. Afghans who are either in the United States already, without a permanent visa, or those who are being housed in American bases and shelters abroad could still be eligible to file their applications. In fact, many have been trying to complete them for years. In total, it is expected that approximately 42,500 Afghans will be admitted into the country through the SIV process.1

Those who do not meet the requirements of the SIV program may potentially be eligible for the Priority 2 U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. These visas are available to those who either worked for or on behalf of our government or armed forces, but for less than one year. It is also open to those who worked for American-funded programs or organizations within Afghanistan.2

Asylum and Refugee Cases: For those who do not qualify for an SIV, American immigration law also provides other legal avenues for those at risk from persecution by their own government to settle in the United States. Both the asylum and refugee programs will be critical for the future of Afghans who may be targeted by the Taliban. These legal avenues operate with similar goals of providing safe harbor to those who face peril in their home country, but which one is used typically depends on where an applicant is physically located.

Refugees are typically processed and vetted abroad in cooperation with the United Nations and other aid organizations before being brought to the United States or other countries for resettlement. Each year, there is a set limit on the number of refugees the United States will accept. This cap is determined by the President, and it is currently set at 62,500, though the Biden administration has pledged to raise the cap to 125,000 in 2022.3 A typical refugee case takes 18 to 24 months to process before a fully vetted person can enter the United States. Refugees must prove through multiple screenings and hearings that they were persecuted or fear persecution due to their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. Moreover, refugees cannot pick where they are resettled. Instead, the United Nations determines where they will refer each refugee. Sometimes, family connections in a receiving country may help determine where a person is placed, but the international body, not the refugee, chooses where they will live.

Alternatively, the asylum process is designed to safeguard those who have already made it to United States soil. American asylum laws use the same eligibility criteria as the refugee system, but unlike the refugee system, it has no specific annual cap. Those who have been evacuated to United States directly could be eligible to apply for asylum. Like the refugee process, these cases often take years to fully adjudicate and require extensive background checks.4

Humanitarian Parole: Humanitarian parole is a special immigration provision that allows those who otherwise would not be eligible to resettle here to enter temporarily. For Afghan evacuees, this is a critical avenue to ensure that those who are backlogged in the immigration channels have time to have their applications or cases fairly processed.5 Granting humanitarian parole also provides Afghans with the ability to apply for asylum in the United States once they are here, and to remain here legally while their cases are reviewed.

The Impact of Resettlement

While the current moment rightfully has drawn significant attention to Afghan evacuees, resettling them will likely occur with little fanfare or noticeable changes to the country. Voters support this effort—55% of Americans in a recent poll said Afghan evacuees should be resettled in the United States, with just 33% saying they should not.6 Even more (68%) were supportive when asked if the United States should resettle evacuees after security screening, which of course is how the program actually works.7

Americans have successfully resettled and integrated large refugee populations before. From Vietnamese to Cambodians to Syrians, hundreds of thousands of lawful refugees have been brought to our country since the modern system was established after the Second World War. After the Vietnam War ended, the United States successfully resettled 125,000 refugees across the country from the Gulf states to the Twin Cities of Minnesota.8 And data shows that the average refugee is self-sufficient within seven years of arrival in the United States, a relatively fast timeframe given that many are starting a new life with very little.9

And while there are those concerned for potential security risks from asylees, there is little evidence to substantiate those fears. Similar worries were raised about Syrian refugees in 2015, yet no tangible security concern ever arose because of Syrian resettlement in the United States. All immigrants, and especially asylees and refugees, must complete extensive criminal and national security background checks before proceeding through the process. Those seeking to come to the United States on humanitarian grounds are among the most vetted types of immigrants to ever arrive in this country, and there’s no evidence we have anything to fear from Afghans who have worked with the US government for decades.

Talking about Afghan Evacuees:

  • Afghans coming into the United States have earned their visa, and they are comprehensively vetted and following the law. Whether a person or family is coming to the United States through the Special Immigrant Visa system or the refugee or asylum systems, they are following our laws and go through intensive background checks. These processes take months, if not years, to complete.
  • The United States has a moral obligation to protect those who stood by us. We have a responsibility to properly resettle the Afghan people who evacuated with our armed forces. It’s the right thing to do and will ensure that the world can trust America’s word.
  • We have resettled similar population sizes before. They are now major immigrant success stories in America. Refugee groups have a long history of successfully integrating into our communities. Their stories closely resemble the stories of countless generations of Americans who came to this country hoping for safety and a better life. Their story is the American story.


Between the special visas allocated for Afghans who worked with our troops for decades and the broader existing refugee and asylum systems, the United States has significant immigration channels available to eligible evacuees. These were in place long before the war ended in Afghanistan, and like the rest of the immigration system, they require extensive vetting and extensive background checks. Similar to past resettlement initiatives, our country is well-positioned to integrate those Afghans who go through these legal processes to build a new life here.

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  1. United States, Department of State. “Special Immigrant Visas for Afghans - Who Were Employed by/on Behalf of the U.S. Government.” Accessed September 14, 2021.

  2. United States, Department of States. “ U.S. Refugee Admissions Program Priority 2 Designation for Afghan Nationals.” Accessed September 14, 2021.

  3. United States, White House. “Statement by President Joe Biden on Refugee Admissions.” May 03, 2021. Accessed September 14, 2021.  

  4. United States, Citizenship and Immigration Services. “Asylum Frequently Asked Questions.”  September 22, 2020.,have%20had%20your%20fingerprints%20taken. Accessed September 14, 2021.

  5. United States, Citizenship and Immigration Services. “Information for Afghan Nationals on Parole Into the United States.” August 26, 2021. Accessed September 14, 2021.

  6. Eli Yokley, “Voters Increasingly OK With Taliban Takeover as Consequence of Military Withdrawal From Afghanistan” Morning Consult. August 25, 2021. Accessed September 14, 2021.

  7. “Aug. 29-Sept. 1, 2021, Washington Post-ABC News Poll.” Washington Post. September 8, 2021. Accessed September 14, 2021.

  8. Elijah Alperin and Jeanne Batalova. “Vietnamese Immigrants in the United States.” Migration Policy Institute. September 13, 2018. Accessed September 14, 2021.

  9. Ramya M. Vijaya, Monica Miller and David Fletcher, “Within 7 years, refugees are self-sufficient and contributing to the U.S., on average.” Washington Post. August 15, 2017. Accessed September 14, 2021.


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