What OIG Reviewed
Following the Department of State (Department) evacuation and suspension of operations of U.S. Embassy Kabul, Afghanistan, in August 2021, multiple congressional committees requested that the Office of Inspector General (OIG) review the processing of Afghan special immigrant visas (SIV), a program established in 2009 to resettle Afghans who had worked on behalf of the United States in Afghanistan and had experienced an ongoing and serious threat as a result. OIG is issuing a series of reports in response to the requests.
OIG conducted this evaluation, which responds to eight congressional questions, within the following areas: Department efforts to streamline the Afghan SIV process from 2018 through 2022, the impact of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) on the Afghan SIV applicant process, and the future of the Afghan SIV program.
What OIG Recommends
OIG made two recommendations in a prior report (AUD-MERO-23-01, October 2022) involving the Afghan SIV program that are relevant to the findings discussed in this report. Both recommendations are presently open pending further action, and OIG encourages the Department to fully implement these recommendations. In addition, OIG made one new recommendation in this report to further improve the Afghan SIV program. Based on the Department’s response to a draft of this report, OIG considers the new recommendation offered resolved, pending further action. A synopsis of the Department’s comments and OIG’s reply follow the recommendation in the Results section of this report. The Department’s response to the draft report is reprinted in its entirety in Appendix E.
What OIG Found
OIG found that the Department took actions beginning in February 2021 to streamline Afghan SIV applicant processing and mitigate some processing issues; however, as of December 2022, these actions had not eliminated the significant and growing Afghan SIV applicant backlog. Specifically, the Department increased staffing to process emails and determine applicant eligibility; coordinated with the Department of Defense to verify employment; incorporated new software to help process emails; eliminated a portion of the application process; leveraged posts worldwide for SIV interviews; and established remote consular operations in Doha, Qatar. However, because of an increased interest in the program after August 2021, the Department experienced an influx of applications causing a backlog for which the Department had inadequate staffing to process. Without additional dedicated resources to address the situation, the backlog in SIV applications will remain a significant challenge.
OIG also found that the COVID-19 pandemic stalled the Afghan SIV application process, which in-turn increased the number of SIV applicants awaiting in-person interviews. Specifically, Embassy Kabul suspended visa interviews twice: from March 2020 to February 2021 and from June to July 2021 because of COVID-19 outbreaks. However, telework allowed the Department to continue some phases of SIV applicant processing.
Lastly, OIG found that the Department’s Afghan SIV program continues to face challenges. The Department relies on Taliban cooperation for SIV applicant relocation from the country because of a lack of a ground presence in Afghanistan. In addition, the Department has not developed and implemented a strategic performance management approach to resolving the Afghan SIV applicant backlog, and the Department’s Afghan SIV Senior Coordinating Official position has had periods of vacancy and frequent turnover since 2017. Developing and implementing a strategic performance management approach would benefit the Afghan SIV program and help address the SIV applicant backlog.
OIG recommends that the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) Senior Coordinating Official, in coordination with the Bureau of Consular Affairs and the Joint Executive Office for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs and the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, develop and implement a strategic performance management approach to improve the outcomes of the Afghan SIV program, including establishing goals and measures of success to evaluate progress against those established goals.