Senators Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper urge evacuation of SIV applicants

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In this photo provided to The Associated Press, Mohammad Khalid Wardak is seen in Afghanistan on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021, after the U.S. military and its allies rescued him and his family. Wardak, a high-profile Afghan national police officer, was being hunted by the Taliban because of his years working with the American military. (AP Photo)

DENVER– Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet and Senator John Hickenlooper joined colleagues in a bi-partisan effort to ask the Biden Administration to quickly implement changes to the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program in order to protect Afghans in light of the recent Taliban takeover.

The letter reads as follows:

Dear Mr. President,

We write to urge the immediate and full implementation of recently-passed legislation amending
the process and eligibility for the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program and for the
urgent evacuation of SIV applicants whose service to the U.S. mission has put their lives in
jeopardy. As you know, this critical program provides safety for the brave Afghans who served
alongside United States troops in support of the U.S. missions in Afghanistan. As the situation in
Afghanistan deteriorates, these individuals face increased danger at the hands of the Taliban that
has sworn retribution. For this reason, Congress provided additional authorities to improve and
expedite the application process while maintaining the program’s security and integrity. We
implore your Administration to expeditiously implement these changes and immediately
evacuate our Afghan allies to safety.

The United States led coalition forces in Afghanistan for nearly twenty years following the
September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. Our mission safeguarded the American
homeland from terrorist attacks, eliminated Osama bin Laden, and delivered freedom and
education to a generation of Afghan women and children. At every step of the way, our mission
was supported by Afghans who fought alongside us for a better future for their country. They
risked their safety and the well-being of their families to work with the United States. With the
departure of U.S. forces and Taliban rule in place, the safety and security of our Afghan allies
who put their lives on the line to help our service members and diplomats must be a top priority.
For this reason, we urge you to continue the expeditious evacuation of SIV applicants and their
families. At your direction, on July 17 the United States launched Operation Allies Refuge in
order to evacuate SIV applicants in danger from the Taliban’s advances. We appreciate that this
effort has already brought 2,000 Afghans, including primary SIV applicants and their families, to
the United States. However many more remain. The Taliban’s rapid ascendancy across
Afghanistan and takeover of Kabul should not cause us to break our promise to the Afghans who
helped us operate over the past twenty years and are counting on us for assistance. American
inaction would ensure they become refugees or prime targets for Taliban retribution.
Specifically, we urge continued coordination between the Departments of State and Defense to
secure and hold Hamid Karzai International Airport, including to allow for the continuation of
military flights and the resumption of commercial and charter flights. We also urge your
Administration to assist with the passage of individuals to the airport to safety – both those
within Kabul and those outside of the capital – as well as to consider cases where Afghans
fleeing quickly may not have been able to collect or gather appropriate documents.

Additionally, the support and protection of our Afghan allies is why Congress recently passed,
with broad bipartisan support, legislation to make extensive changes to the SIV program. We did
so with the goal of improving the process for applicants while maintaining our national security.
We were pleased that you immediately signed this legislation to make extensive improvements
to the SIV program into law three weeks ago, and now ask that you move just as quickly to
ensure it is properly and fully implemented ensuring applicants and their families can get out of
harm’s way.
To this end, we respectfully request that your Administration immediately implement all aspects
of the statute as Congress intended, including:

  1. Updating internal and external guidance to reflect the change in the employment
    requirement for eligibility from two years of service to one. This adjustment of
    eligibility must be applied to all pending applications, including those on appeal which
    have been denied on the basis of insufficient duration of service but whose appeal is still
    eligible to be re-adjudicated. To ensure that this change is fully implemented, we ask that
    all staff who are charged with processing applications receive training to apply the 12
    month standard to all pending applications and appeals.
  2. The issuance of special immigrant visas to all applicants and their qualified family
    members that have passed all steps of the visa process and only await a medical
    exam. The adjustment of status conferred by a SIV is preferable both to the processing of
    visas and to the applicants than paroling evacuated individuals into the country, thus
    requiring additional filings to confer the statuses included in a SIV.
  3. Full and immediate repeal of the “sensitive and trusted” requirement for
    individuals employed by or on behalf of the NATO-led military mission in
    Afghanistan, as required by the Emergency Security Supplemental Appropriations Act,
    2021, as well as those employed by or on behalf of the United States government.
    Congress repealed the “sensitive and trusted” requirement from U.S. government
    employment in December 2019, but as of this date we are not satisfied that it has been
    fully implemented. We expect the Department of State to implement the removal of
    “sensitive and trusted” activities from NATO-led forces support immediately, re-open the
    cases of any U.S. government employees who have been denied Chief of Mission
    approval for lack of “sensitive and trusted employment” since December 2019, and
    expeditiously update internal and external guidance to reflect this change.
  4. The process for appeals of denials. As newly amended, the law now allows that, if an
    appeal is denied for a reason not listed in the initial denial, the applicant must be allowed
    an opportunity to address the new denial ground. This allowance is due to the high
    success rate for appeals when the cause of denial is known to the applicant. As with other
    changes to the law, we request that your Administration ensure that this change applies to
    all applications within the appeal period. This spares applicants the time and effort of reapplying and conserves the precious processing resources of the U.S. government.
  5. Prioritization of applications based on date of the initial application. We once again
    clarify that the “prioritization” scheme that was introduced in the Consolidated
    Appropriations Act of 2019 is no longer law. In addition, all application processing must
    comply with the Congressionally-mandated nine month processing requirement.
  6. Full transparency and adequate guidance for applicants. This includes, but is not
    limited to, updating all public websites maintained by the relevant U.S. government
    authorities to provide applicants with complete information about eligibility and process
    for applying. Most applicants do not have access to legal counsel for the sake of
    understanding the current process. All changes in program eligibility must be readily
    accessible and all changes that impact current applicants must be communicated directly
    to applicants.

    We appreciate the efforts that you and your Administration have made on behalf of Afghans who
    worked in support of the U.S. in Afghanistan. We must now concentrate all U.S. efforts on
    supporting and protecting our Afghan allies. Anything short of full implementation results in
    grave security implications. You have the strong support of both chambers of Congress to ensure
    that no additional Afghan lives are needlessly lost.

Earlier this week, Senator Bennet and Senator Hickenlooper and other colleagues asked Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to create a humanitarian parole category for Afghan women leaders who would be likely to be targeted by the Taliban. 

Besides Senator Bennet and Senator Hickenlooper, the letter was signed by the following U.S. Senators: Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Mitt Romney (R-Utah), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Gary Peters (D-Mich.), Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), John Cornyn (R-Texas), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Roger Marshall (R-Kan.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Angus King (I-Maine), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Brain Schatz (D-Hawaii), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Tom Carper (D-Del.), Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.).

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