WASHINGTON — A small portion of the thousands of Afghans who worked for the U.S. government will be flown directly to the U.S., while a larger group will be evacuated to third countries or military bases overseas where their visa paperwork will be reviewed, three administration officials told NBC News.
As U.S. troops leave the country, the Biden administration has come under growing pressure from lawmakers, veterans groups and refugee rights organizations to take action to protect Afghans who face retaliation from the Taliban for their work as interpreters or in other jobs for U.S. troops and diplomats.
About 2,500 Afghans whose visa applications have cleared security vetting will be eligible for evacuation directly to a U.S. military base in the U.S., along with their family members, a State Department spokesperson and two Defense officials said.
“Shortly after they arrive, once the medical check-up requirement is complete, their immigration status will be adjusted so they can be eligible for refugee resettlement benefits that will help them and their families with the resettlement process,” the State Department spokesperson said.
Another 10,000 whose background checks are still pending will be flown to “a U.S. military base overseas or to third countries, where they will be safely housed until their immigration processing is complete,” the State Department spokesperson said.
The evacuation flights, using chartered civilian planes, are expected to begin within days, two Defense officials and two refugee advocates briefed on the matter said.
Roughly 20,000 Afghans who worked for the U.S. government over the past two decades have applied for a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV), a program set up for former interpreters, drivers and others who face mortal danger for their association with the United States.
Lawmakers from both parties and activists have urged President Joe Biden to fly out all 20,000 of the Afghan partners and their families to Guam or other U.S. territory, arguing that the bureaucratic process has been marked by incessant delays and that time is running out as the Taliban gain ground.
The administration initially said it had no plans for an evacuation but as the security situation has deteriorated since Biden announced in April plans to withdraw all U.S. troops, officials gradually shifted their stance.
The decision to fly only a small number directly to the U.S. will likely be met with disappointment by refugee advocates and members of Congress, who say Washington has a moral obligation to help evacuate all Afghans who worked for the U.S.
But the administration has said half of those 20,000 are only at an initial stage of their visa application. The State Department spokesperson said “these applicants need to take action before the U.S. government can begin processing their cases.”
The evacuations will be carried out “in advance of the full withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan,” the spokesperson said.
The remaining U.S. troops in Afghanistan are due to depart by the end of August.