How Many Afghans Should We Admit?

A look at the numbers

By Nayla Rush on August 24, 2021

As the Afghanistan debacle unfolds before our eyes, calls for the evacuation of Afghan nationals who risked their lives to assist U.S. forces in Afghanistan are mounting. “Operation Allies Refuge”, launched by the Biden administration in July, began their evacuation out of Afghanistan; some to U.S. military bases in the United States, others to U.S. military bases overseas or to third counties “where they will be safely housed until their immigration processing is complete”, according to a State Department Spokesperson.

How many Afghans in need of evacuation are we talking about?

There are those who can come under the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program. In response to concerns about the dangers certain Afghans who assisted the U.S. government faced in their own country, a series of legislative provisions enacted by Congress since 2006 allow Afghan nationals to come to the United States under the “Special Immigrant Visa” (SIV) program. SIVs for Afghans “apply to individuals who performed U.S. government-related service, with one requiring the presence of a serious threat to the individual as a result of that U.S. government employment”. For the past 15 years, some 75,000 U.S.-affiliated Afghans and their family members were admitted to the United States with a special immigrant visa.

Looking at just the two SIV programs for Afghan nationals, there are about 100,000 people, including family members, at issue (unless further increases are enacted by Congress).

The smaller of the two SIV programs is for Afghan Translators/Interpreters, which offers visas to up to 50 principal applicants a year. Over the last 15 years, 2,000 Afghans have been admitted under this program, including 1,400 family members. Let’s assume all the spots are still available, that’s another 50 Afghans plus, say, 200 family members, for a total of 250.

The other, much larger, SIV program is the “Special Immigrant Visas for Afghans Who Were Employed by/on Behalf of the U.S. Government”. It is for certain Afghans working directly the U.S. government, or for contractors providing services on behalf of the U.S. government, during a specified period (the minimum time in service was recently reduced from two years to one year) and who could face repercussions because of this employment. Around 74,000 Afghans have been admitted through this program over the last 15 years (principal applicants plus family members).

On December 27, 2020, Congress authorized an additional 4,000 SIVs for Afghan principal applicants, resulting in a program total of 26,500 available SIVs. Congress increased this number to 34,500 visas this July. (Unlike the SIV for translators, this SIV program is temporary, meaning that Congress authorizes a certain number of visas to be issued in total, rather than an annual cap that repeats every year; when the pool of visas is used up, the program ends, unless Congress adds more.)

As the State Department page on SIVs explains:

The Emergency Security Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2021, as enacted on July 30, 2021, authorized 8,000 additional SIVs for Afghan principal applicants, for a total of 34,500 visas allocated since December 19, 2014. The program will end when all visas have been issued. SIVs issued to a principal applicant’s spouse and children do not count toward the numerical limit.

How many of these SIVs are still available? According to official data, as of March 31, there were a total of 10,859 SIVs for Afghan applicants remaining (with a total of 15,641 Afghan numbers used). (More recent Afghan SIV admissions are available here: some 1,060 Afghans were admitted during April - July 2021. But these are principal applicants and their family members.)

The number of pending applications from Afghan principal applicants is about 18,000 (these include incomplete applications).

What is not clear, however, is the total number of Afghans eligible for the program. As noted by the Congressional Research Service:

A related question for which U.S. officials do not seem to have an answer is how many Afghans may be eligible for the program (whether or not they have submitted applications). Asked at the House hearing whether he had an estimate of how many Afghans may be eligible for the Afghan SIV program who had not yet applied, Special Representative Khalilzad replied, “I do not.”

There should still be around 11,000 SIV spots available for Afghan principal applicants. Let’s add to this number 8,000 spots as per the new allocation: We end up with 19,000 SIVs for principal applicants. Dependents can add up to three or four times that number, so 60,000-80,000 family members. The total is around 100,000 SIVs available to Afghan principal applicants and their family members.

To summarize, when we talk about evacuating Afghans who assisted U.S. forces and are eligible for a Special Immigrant Visa, we’re talking about a total of perhaps 100,000 Afghans (including dependents).

Another program is available to Afghan nationals who are not eligible for a Special Immigrant Visa; those Afghans can be admitted into the United States as refugees.

The Department of State announced on August 2 a Priority 2 designation granting U.S. Refugee Admissions Program access for certain Afghan nationals and their family members (spouse and children of any age, whether married or unmarried) who could face risks following the withdrawal of U.S. troops, but who are not eligible for either SIV program.

Afghan individuals eligible for the Direct Access Priority 2 Resettlement Program include:

  • Afghans who do not meet the minimum time-in-service for an SIV, but who work or worked as employees of contractors, locally employed staff, interpreters/translators for the U.S. government, U.S. Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A), International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), or Resolute Support;
  • Afghans who work or worked for a U.S. government-funded program or project in Afghanistan supported through a U.S. government grant or cooperative agreement; and
  • Afghans who are or were employed in Afghanistan by a U.S.-based media organization or non-governmental organization.

The U.S. refugee resettlement program is capped under a yearly presidential determination on refugee admissions. The FY 2021 ceiling was raised by President Biden to 62,500 (from the 15,000 cap set by President Trump).

Actual refugee admissions from all countries this fiscal year (through July 31) total 6,274 (of whom 494 were from Afghanistan). This leaves 56,226 spots for the remainder of this fiscal year, i.e. through September 30. If all spots were to be used by Afghan nationals, that would mean refugees from other countries (such as Syrians, Burmese, Congolese, et al.) would be left behind. This would also be true if the refugee ceiling is increased in FY 2022 to 125,000 admissions or more, as promised by Biden.

Finally, there are millions of Afghans who did not assist U.S. forces, but who could nonetheless end up wanting to leave their country as refugees, fearful of a Taliban rule. (Afghanistan's population is about 38 million.) The United States cannot possibly welcome millions of potential Afghan refugees.

There must be a limit to the United States’ capacity (not to mention will) to admit people in need. Can we welcome in all: border crossers from Central America (and other countries), Afghans, earthquake survivors, and, as per President Biden’s plan, “climate refugees”? Where does the United States government draw the line?