(WASHINGTON) — The Biden administration is expanding the group of Afghans who could be granted refugee status and flee to the United States to escape the growing threat of the Taliban across Afghanistan, the State Department announced Monday.
The militant group is increasingly gaining control of districts across the country, as the war-torn country teeters dangerously towards collapse into all-out civil war.
But while President Joe Biden has committed to helping Afghans who helped the U.S. military and diplomatic mission in the country for the last 20 years, the new policy will apply only to Afghans who have left the country and will take at least over a year for their cases to be processed, according to senior State Department officials -- even as the risk to these Afghans is urgent.
The Biden administration has launched relocation flights for thousands of Afghans who worked as interpreters, guides, and other contractors and applied for Special Immigrant Visas - some 20,000 applicants in total, according to a State Department spokesperson, although only a fraction of them will be evacuated by the U.S.
For interpreters and other contractors who did not meet the required two years of service for a Special Immigrant Visa, the State Department will now allow them to apply for refugee status instead. They're also expanding the pool of potential refugees to any Afghan who worked for a U.S.-based media outlet, for a U.S. government-funded program, or for a U.S. government-supported project.
After 20 years of humanitarian development across the country, that's a wide category of Afghans, along with their eligible family members. Senior State Department officials declined to provide an estimate, but said it was likely in the tens of thousands in total.
The administration has been under pressure, especially from Republican and Democrat lawmakers and U.S. veterans' groups, to do more to help Afghans who worked with or for the U.S. during two decades of war and development - and who therefore may be at greater risk of retaliatory attacks by the Taliban.
While the militant group's political leaders have said Afghans will not be harmed, the last year has seen a string of high-profile assassinations against journalists, women's rights activists, minority leaders, and military and police chiefs. At least 300 interpreters have been killed by Taliban fighters since 2014, according to the advocacy group No One Left Behind.
"The U.S. objective remains a peaceful, secure Afghanistan. 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 in a statement.
But the refugee resettlement process takes several months, if not years, including intensive security vetting, and the process will require Afghan applicants to leave the country, according to senior State Department officials - something that many cannot afford, cannot risk, or cannot manage.
"This program is meant to expand the aperture of people who have an opportunity to be resettled in the United States beyond the SIVs. It is our attempt to try to offer an option to people," said a senior State Department official.
The State Department has said it will evacuate nearly 5,000 of those "SIV's," or Special Immigrant Visa applicants, along with their eligible family members like spouses and children.
Some 750 and their dependents - 2,500 in total - who have been granted approval by the U.S. embassy in Kabul and cleared security vetting will be moved to Fort Lee, a U.S. Army base in central Virginia. The first of them arrived last Friday, with a second flight with 200 more arriving early Monday and now at Ft. Lee, according to a U.S. official.
In addition, 4,000 applicants who have been approved by the embassy, but are awaiting security clearances, will be moved to safe third countries. Along with their family members, the group could total approximately 20,000, and diplomatic discussions on where to house them all as they wait months for their applications to be processed remain underway with several countries, including Kuwait, Qatar, and Kazakhstan, according to U.S. officials.
But a senior State Department official said the administration does not plan to relocate any of the Afghans who now qualify for refugee status under this new designation, known as Priority 2, or P2. Instead, their employer will open a case with the embassy in Kabul, and once the U.S. government confirms it is ready to begin processing their case, they must find their own way to a third country and declare themselves a refugee.
"At this point in time, unfortunately, we do not anticipate relocating them, but we will continue to examine all the options to protect those who have served with or for us, and we will review the situation on the ground, and our planning will continue to evolve," said the senior official.
Once outside of Afghanistan, it could take at least 12 to 14 months for their case to be adjudicated, per the senior official.
As the new designations could lead to thousands of Afghans fleeing the country and seeking refugee status, a second senior official said the U.S. government has had conversations with some of Afghanistan's neighbors, like Pakistan, about preparing for refugee flows and keeping their borders open to refugees.
ABC News's Luis Martinez contributed to this report.
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