What Is Special Immigrant Visa Status?

In a Nutshell

Certain Afghans or Iraqis who helped the United States government are eligible to apply for special immigrant visa status. Although this process is long and complicated, if granted, it could lead to lawful permanent resident status in the United States. This article will explain how special immigrant status works, why it exists, and how to apply for it if you’re eligible.

Written by Amelia Neimi
Updated August 7, 2022

The U.S. Department of State issues special immigrant visas (SIVs) to individuals who assist the U.S. military abroad.

The SIV program has been available to immigrants since 1965, when it was introduced as an amendment to the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). Generally, it’s available to people who have provided public service to the U.S. government and whose lives (or their family members’ lives) are in danger as a result of this service.

Today, there are two main types of SIVs available for people who assisted the U.S. during the Afghanistan War and Iraq War. Iraqi and Afghan nationals who served as translators and interpreters in Iraq and Afghanistan are eligible for this status. Afghan allies who were employed by the U.S. government or on behalf of the U.S. government can also receive an Afghan SIV. 

These were established by Congress through the National Defense Authorization Act. The number of Afghan SIVs available was recently expanded through the Emergency Security Supplemental Appropriations Act (ESSAA).

Receiving special immigrant status leads to lawful permanent resident (LPR) status, also known as a green card, but not citizenship. However, someone who has an SIV and a green card can become a U.S. citizen in the future.

Am I Eligible To Apply for a Special Immigrant Visa?

There are several different eligibility categories for special immigrant visas. Today, the people who use the special immigrant visa program primarily fall into two categories.

The first category is Iraqi and Afghan translators or interpreters during the wars in the Middle East. The second category is other Afghan citizens who worked for, or on behalf of, the U.S. government. There are slightly different eligibility requirements for these categories.

Translators and interpreters must:

  • Be an Iraq or Afghanistan national,

  • Have worked directly with the U.S. government for 12 months, or under Command of Mission (COM) authority, and

  • Have a letter of recommendation from a general or flag officer in the chain of command of the unit they supported as a translator or interpreter or from the COM at the embassy where they worked.

Afghan nationals who were employed by the U.S. government in other positions must:

  • Have been employed in Afghanistan for at least one year between Oct. 7, 2001, and Dec. 31, 2023, by the U.S. government or performed sensitive activities for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) during this time,

  • Have performed loyal and faithful service that is documented in a letter of recommendation from a senior supervisor, and

  • Have experienced ongoing threats as a result of their service.

People who are eligible for this second type of SIV must apply for it by Dec. 31, 2023.

How Do I Apply for a Special Immigrant Visa?

Applying for an SIV generally involves submitting correct forms to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and the Department of State, as well as having an interview with a U.S. consular office. The Department of State approves these applications, while the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is responsible for admitting those with special immigrant visas.

The SIV application process can take more than two years to complete and can be complicated. If possible, consider working with an experienced immigration lawyer. They can walk you through the process, make sure you have all the required documents, and help make the best case possible.

The application process is different for people who served as translators in Iraq and Afghanistan and for Afghans who were employed by the U.S. in other capacities during the wars.

Let’s take a look at the steps involved for each of these applications.

SIV Process for Afghan or Iraqi Translators or Interpreters 

If you are an Afghan or Iraqi national who worked as a translator or interpreter, there are several steps you must take to apply for an SIV. First, you need to submit USCIS Form I-360, which requires a valid original signature and a $435 filing fee. You also need to submit several documents, including the following:

  • Proof you are a national of Iraq or Afghanistan. This could be a copy of your passport or your birth certificate. If the document isn’t in English, you’ll also need a certified translation.

  • Proof that you worked as a translator or interpreter for the U.S. Armed Forces or under COM authority for at least 12 months.

  • A background check from the U.S. Armed Forces or COM.

  • A letter of recommendation from a general or flag officer in the chain of command of the unit you supported or the U.S. Embassy in Kabul or Baghdad.

USCIS will review your petition. If it accepts the petition, it will transfer your case to the Department of State’s National Visa Center (NVC) for processing. The NVC will email you a welcome letter with information to submit an Application for Immigrant Visa and Alien Registration (Form DS-260).

Each of your family members applying for SIV status must provide all of the following:

Applicants from Iraq must also include a police certificate either from Iraq or the country they’ve been living in for the past 12 months. Afghans don’t need this form if they are coming from Afghanistan but do need it if they’ve lived in another country for the past 12 months.

You can submit this document to NVCSIV@state.gov using the case number in your welcome letter. After doing so, the NVC will review your paperwork. This process can take eight weeks. Once the review is finished, NVC will let you schedule an appointment for a visa interview with a U.S. consular office. 

SIV Process for Afghans Employed by the U.S. Government

The SIV process for Afghans employed in other ways by the U.S. government is a little different. It was streamlined for people applying after July 20, 2022.

Under the new process for the Afghan special immigrant visa, applicants need to submit Form DS-157 and a Chief of Mission approval application to AfghanSIVApplication@state.gov. The State Department will review the application and send you a welcome letter with instructions on how to complete your application.

You may be required to submit Form I-360 as part of this process. Additionally, you’ll need to send the following:

  • A copy of your passport, with a certified English translation if it’s in another language.

  • A copy of the letter of recommendation you sent to the NVC.

  • Your COM approval.

If you’re already in the United States, you’ll also need a copy of Form I-94. This document shows your arrival information.

If you’re outside the U.S., you need to complete Form DS-260, which you can do through the Consular Application Electronic Center online. You also need to collect documents about you and any family members you want to bring to the U.S. Specifically, you’ll need:

Scan these documents and submit them to NVCSIV@state.gov along with the case number in your welcome letter.

After the NVC receives all your paperwork and makes sure it’s complete, it will contact you to schedule an immigrant visa interview. However, operations at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul have been suspended since Aug. 31, 2021, so you will not be able to have an interview in Afghanistan.