Review of the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa Program

AUD-MERO-20-35
    Report Contents
    Unclassified
    Unclassified

    What OIG Reviewed

    In 2009, Congress passed the Afghan Allies Protection Act, which established a special immigrant visa (SIV) program to resettle Afghans who were or are employed in Afghanistan by the U.S. Government or by the International Security Assistance Force and experienced an ongoing and serious threat as a result of their employment. Congress amended the Act in 2013 to improve the efficiency of the visa issuance process. From FY 2009 to FY 2019, 18,471 special immigrant visas were issued, and as of September 2019, 18,864 applicants remained in the process. The FY 2020 National Defense Authorization Act directed the Department of State (Department), Office of Inspector General (OIG), to evaluate and offer improvements to eight identified obstacles that could affect the effective protection of Afghan allies through the SIV program and provide suggestions for improvements in future programs.

    What OIG Recommends

    OIG made six recommendations in this report intended to improve the SIV program. On the basis of the Under Secretary for Management’s response to a draft of this report, OIG considers one recommendation closed and five recommendations resolved, pending further action. A synopsis of management’s comments and OIG’s reply follow each recommendation in the Results section of this report. The Under Secretary for Management’s response to a draft of this report is reprinted in its entirety in Appendix B. OIG previously issued a Management Assistance Report related to this topic that offered three recommendations to improve the process by which the Department reports the Afghan SIV applicant wait times.

    What OIG Found

    OIG evaluated the eight obstacles identified by Congress. Two obstacles did not significantly affect the Department’s implementation of the Afghan SIV program. One obstacle, the uncertainty of visa availability, affects implementation but depends on congressional SIV allocation. However, five obstacles, if unaddressed, will remain impediments to implementing the Afghan SIV program and achieving the goals defined by statute, which is to issue an SIV within a 9-month timeframe. Specifically, OIG found that the Department’s staffing levels across its various offices that process Afghan SIVs have generally remained constant since 2016 and are insufficient to reduce the SIV applicant backlog. Similarly, staffing levels during the interagency and security check process contribute to delays in processing the Afghan SIVs. Additionally, the Department lacks a centralized database to effectively document the identity of locally employed staff and contractors. Instead, the Department relies on multiple information technology systems that are not interoperable. Finally, OIG found that the U.S. Government offers protection and safety to SIV applicants within the confines of the workplace; however, protection outside of work hours is impracticable.

    These obstacles exist, in part, because the Senior Coordinating Official position, which is intended to oversee and direct the Afghan SIV program, has been vacant since January 2017. As a result, the Department’s management of resources and strategic planning for the Afghan SIV program is decentralized and lacks the focus needed to continuously evaluate the program and seek improvements. In addition, the Senior Coordinating Official position is needed to plan for changes in applicant volume throughout the SIV process and to promote continuity of operations. Until a designated leader has the authority to direct the management of the Afghan SIV program, these obstacles will continue to hinder the U.S. Government’s ability to timely process Afghan SIV applicants who are experiencing threats as a result of their employment with the U.S. Government.

    Recommendation Number
    1
    Closed Implemented Significant

    OIG recommends that the Secretary of State or his designee, in accordance with the FY 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, appoint a Senior Coordinating Official (Special Immigrant Visa Coordinator) to oversee all aspects of the special immigrant visa program, including operations within the Bureau of Consular Affairs, the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, and the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, and in coordination with the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security.

    Recommendation Number
    2
    Closed Implemented Significant

    OIG recommends that the Senior Coordinating Official assess staffing levels at each stage of the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa program and report to OIG how the Department of State plans to (a) reduce the backlog of Afghan Special Immigrant Visa applicants to comply with the 9-month timeframe established by Congress, (b) maintain special immigrant visa staffing at an appropriate level to comply with the 9-month timeframe established by Congress, and (c) incorporate this information into congressional reporting.

    Recommendation Number
    3
    Closed Implemented

    OIG recommends that the Senior Coordinating Official evaluate the staffing level at the Office of Screening, Analysis, and Coordination and determine the appropriate staffing needed to review applications.

    Recommendation Number
    4
    Closed Implemented Significant

    OIG recommends that the Secretary of State or his designee, in consultation with the Secretary of Defense, the Administrator of U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Secretary of Homeland Security, re-examine options for establishing a unified database of information related to personnel conducting work on executive agency contracts, grants, or cooperative agreements that can be used to adjudicate special immigrant visas or, alternatively, use an existing database such as the Synchronized Predeployment and Operational Tracker.

    Recommendation Number
    5
    Closed New Report Significant

    OIG recommends that the Secretary of State or his designee direct an evaluation to determine if legacy systems should be updated or made interoperable or if a new system should instead be developed to minimize redundancy in data entry. The evaluation results should include (a) deployment dates for the updated, modified, or new system or an explanation as to why these improvements would not be prudent to execute and (b) other improvements that can be made to promote the efficacy of the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa program. The results of this evaluation should be provided to OIG and, as appropriate, incorporated into congressional reporting.

    Recommendation Number
    6
    Closed Implemented Significant

    OIG recommends that the Secretary of State or his designee, in consultation with the Secretary of Defense, the Administrator of U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Secretary of Homeland Security, examine whether and how protection could be provided for special immigrant visa applicants experiencing “imminent danger” as they await processing of their applications for immigration to the United States.