A U.S.-based advocacy group for refugees trying to enter the United States says the U.S. Embassy in Kabul has officially stopped scheduling interviews for applicants under the Afghan special immigrant visa program.
The International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), a program of the New York-based Urban Justice Center, says the process for interviewing and vetting Afghan applicants was put on hold on March 9 "due to a shortage in available visas … leaving thousands of Afghan allies and their families in immediate danger."
IRAP and pro bono lawyers that it works with are engaged in cases where Afghans and their families are granted "special immigrant" status because of the work they’ve performed for the U.S. government or U.S. military in Afghanistan that puts the families' lives at risk.
Those who apply include Afghans who have served as translators in the battlefield with U.S. or NATO forces, as well as for intelligence or other operations within U.S. military bases or U.S. government facilities.
In order to qualify for the U.S. government’s special visa program, Afghan applicants must go through a difficult and lengthy vetting process that usually takes at least five years and requires letters of recommendation from senior U.S. military officers or U.S. government officials in Afghanistan.
Applicants also must be interviewed by the U.S. Embassy in Kabul as part of the vetting process before actually receiving the special visas.
More than 10,000 Afghans are currently in the process of trying to obtain the special visas, but fewer than 1,500 of the visas remain.
The U.S. State Department did not immediately comment, but provided a travel bulletin saying the department expects to exhaust all its special immigrants slots by June 1 and had decided to conduct no further interviews of visa applicants after March 1.
Officials at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul were not immediately available for comment.
IRAP’s Policy Director Betsy Fisher said that news of the interview freeze in Kabul was a "devastating development."
"This means that thousands of trusted U.S. allies will remain in danger, waiting for Congress to allocate visas that were clearly needed months ago," Fisher said.
IRAP National Security Policy Associate Mac McEachin noted that the development comes on the same day that the Pentagon announced fresh deployments of U.S. ground troops to fight against Islamic State militants in Syria.
"Now that the world has seen how we turn our backs on our Afghan allies, there is almost no chance that local allies in Syria will be inclined to work with us," McEachin said.
Some Afghans who received the special visas have experienced difficulties with border officials when trying to enter the United States since President Donald Trump on January 27 issued an executive order that temporarily barred entry into the United States for citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
Although Afghanistan was not one of those seven countries, and although Trump’s travel order was blocked by U.S. federal judges, an Afghan family of five was held for 40 hours earlier in March upon their arrival at Los Angeles International Airport.
That family was separated, with the father being sent to a detention center in Orange County, California.
Meanwhile, the mother and three children, none of whom speaks English, were ordered by customs officials to be sent to a separate detention facility in Texas.
The family was reunited after lawyers working through IRAP won their release on March 6 through a federal court ruling.
However, that family still must pass an "admissibility interview" set for early April before they are allowed to resettle in the United States.
On March 6, Trump signed a revised executive order that freezes the issuance of new visas for citizens from six predominantly Muslim countries -- Iran, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen.
The revised order, due to come into effect on March 16, says valid preexisting visas would still be honored for individuals from those six countries.
IRAP on March 9 called on the U.S. Congress to pass legislation that would authorize and allocate funds that would immediately allow for at least 2,500 more visas under the Afghan special immigrant visa program.
With reporting by Carl Schreck in Washington