How does international conflict shape immigration bureaucracy? Sherine Ebadi, a PhD Candidate in the UC Berkeley Department of Geography, researches the impact of Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) and employment-based visa programs on Afghan nationals who worked with the U.S. military. For Ebadi, visa programs like the SIV are crucial lenses for understanding imperialism as well as social relations within the Afghan diaspora.
In this podcast interview, J.T. Jamieson, a recent PhD graduate from the UC Berkeley Department of History and a 2022-2023 Matrix Communications Scholar, spoke with Ebadi about the relationships between humanitarianism, foreign intervention, war, and immigration, as well as the lived experiences of Afghans navigating the SIV process, especially those in the diasporic community in Northern California.
An edited transcript of the interview is included below.
J.T. Jamieson: Hello, and welcome to the Matrix Podcast. I’m J.T. Jamieson, your host, coming to you from the Ethnic Studies Changemaker Studio, our recording partner on UC Berkeley’s campus. Our guest today is Sherine Ebadi, a PhD candidate in the Geography Department at UC Berkeley. Her research focuses on the politics of U.S. immigration bureaucracy during times of humanitarian conflict. Her dissertation explores historical and contemporary usages of employment-based visas such as the Special Immigrant Visa offered to Iraqi and Afghan translators, and the role of contractual labor in precipitating refugee adjacent immigration categories. Sherine, thank you for joining us today.
Sherine Ebadi: Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to talk with you about this.
Jamieson: Much of your work analyzes the bureaucracy behind the Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV. But what is it, exactly? And what makes it unique in modern immigration bureaucracy?
Ebadi: So the SIV has a not very long history in contemporary and modern immigration history. It’s been used as an exemption category, let’s say. The very first time the SIV came into being and existence was actually in 1965. There was an Immigration and Nationality Act that included the SIV as a permanent employment-based visa category. Of course, that’s not the very first time that the idea of something like an SIV existed. It actually came out of a whole series of debates throughout the 1900s that were really about national origins, quotas, and who deserved to be a citizen in the United States. So we can definitely talk more about that. But in a lot of ways, the history of the SIV supports a certain type of ethical consideration in the face of racial exclusions that really defined a lot of the U.S. immigration history of the 1900s.
Jamieson: Right, so it’s related to other categories — which have long histories — of refugees or asylum seekers. How exactly does the category of the SIV relate to those other legal categories? And how have those categories shaped the SIV over the course of the 20th century?
Ebadi: Yeah, it has. I mean, it’s a very broad and catch-all category. So, let’s start with that – yes, it does have a lot of similarity to refugee and asylum categories. But it’s also used for a host of other things, too, that are very much employment-based.
With the refugee side of things, it’s very interconnected with three types of visas: humanitarian parole, number one; refugee visas, number two; and asylum visas, number three. So you have in the case of Afghans, a lot of people coming in first through humanitarian parole. What humanitarian parole means is that it’s a presidential power, essentially, to designate a category of people or person to be able to come into the United States for fear of persecution. That doesn’t require very much congressional oversight. So that’s the big difference between a parole power, versus a refugee, versus asylum power.
Refugee and asylum are often used interchangeably, but they’re actually different things. Refugee means that somebody has been displaced from their country, and they’re applying to the United States to come to live as a permanent resident in the United States for fear of persecution; however, they’re not yet in the United States.
And asylum means that the person is in the United States, either in status, or with no status. And they are applying for permanent residency. So those are the three things that we see and the ways that Afghans have been able, post-2001, to move to the United States. But the path to long-term residency would be through the SIV and through the qualification of having worked with the U.S. government, therefore qualifying for a special immigrant visa.
Jamieson: So, this is really about the War on Terror, right? We’re talking about a post-9/11 world, we’re talking U.S. involvement in Iraq and in Afghanistan. How does the SIV come out of this conflict? And what exactly are people who are eligible for the SIV doing for the U.S. military? Why does the U.S. military depend on them?
Ebadi: Yeah, it’s such an interesting question, because we see so much in the news. And in terms of broader awareness about, let’s say, Afghan translators with the military, there’s been a ton of focus on these people. There’s also a large Afghan diaspora that came before the War on Terror. A good way to think about that question is, let’s look at what the emigration pathways were for Afghans before the War on Terror, and what happened after the War on Terror, and what are we seeing now? And that’s a good way to trace the politics of the immigration system, and see how it interacts with conflicts.
So the first major cohort of Afghans to arrive in the U.S. came throughout the 1980s and the 1990s. They came mostly as refugees. Most of them had fled to Pakistan, were living in Pakistan and India and Tajikistan and surrounding areas and then applied for visas to come to the United States. So this was very much a Cold War kind of humanitarian policy of saying, these people are fleeing communism, because the Soviet Union invaded Kabul in 1979. And so the visas that were available to them were actually on a refugee basis. It is very clear in that instance, that [the U.S. government] is saying, Afghans are refugees.
Now, post-2001, we no longer have the word refugee, at least in political discourse attached to Afghans, despite us all knowing that fleeing persecution is a common thread in all of these cohorts of diaspora. Of course, a lot of people have said that the U.S. doesn’t want to call Afghans refugees, because it would invalidate the political project of the War on Terror – making Afghanistan a safer place.
I mean, that might be true, in one regard. It’s also a little bit more complex than that because of the geopolitics, the kind of complications of the area, and also the lack of, quite frankly, knowledge by the U.S. generally, and the military more specifically, of really subtle and internal dynamics that were required in order to conduct the War on Terror. In order to make that project possible, the U.S. would need almost an entire military that was comprised of Afghans. And what’s also interesting in this case, is that a lot of Afghans really supported the U.S., interventions, and really wanted the kinds of rights and type of democracy and peace that the War on Terror provided. So the SIV really recruited and created allies to the U.S. cause, both in an immigration sense and in an embodied sense.
Jamieson: There’s a lot of clearly complex layers here – thinking about the SIV as it relates to some kind of humanitarian or state building project from the perspective of some Afghans, and a political, military project from the perspective of the United States. So how in your research do you analyze the relationships between all of these things: humanitarian interest, the interest of Afghans who are working for the U.S. military or with the U.S. military, and the political and military interests of the United States abroad?
Ebadi: Yeah, that’s a question that I’m really grappling with right now. And it’s a hard one to answer because I’m of the Afghan diaspora myself, but I grew up here in the United States. There’s a lot of different opinions and stakes about what the U.S. was doing, should be doing, and what their responsibilities to Afghans are and were.
So when I think about humanitarianism, it’s a word that’s really hot and political. There’s been a lot of academia that has critiqued humanitarianism, the kind of benevolent humanitarian, group aid dynamic, that can be very colonial in a certain way, trying to say that these certain types of values are universal and good for everybody, even though those values are from often, let’s say, a Western standpoint. And I appreciate and agree for the most part with those critiques.
At the same time, it’s easy to critique something when you are not living under extreme circumstances, where you’re afraid for your life, where you just basically want an education, where you’re scared for your family. And these are the kinds of situations that Afghans really live in. And it’s complicated to be in an academic situation, talking with interlocutors, with this critique of humanitarianism, when what I hear a lot from Afghans that have come to the U.S. post-2001, is that they were actually supportive because they were able to get an education, unlike their mothers. So I think part of what my research is also trying to do is look at U.S. imperialism but from within. As to humanitarianism, it’s more to say, how do the people who are supposedly the benefactors of this actually feel about humanitarianism? And those views aren’t necessarily as critical as we might think they would be in an academic setting.
Jamieson: There’s been a lot of discussion about Afghan refugees, or immigrants, or recipients of the SIV, more specifically, during and after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. There has been a lot of critique of the whole system by a lot of the media in the United States. How do you feel that the immigration bureaucracy or the experience of recipients of the SIV has changed before and after U.S. withdrawal?
Ebadi: I think this is just speaking off of anecdotal experience that I’ve had in research. But before the U.S. withdrawal, there seemed to be a lot more feelings of opposition towards the U.S. occupation in Afghanistan. Like, what are we doing there? Shouldn’t Afghans be able to govern and secure their own nation? There was a lot of thought about U.S. empire, new forms of warfare, and endless occupation.
Now, post-2021, obviously, images are so, so important in terms of forming political views and political opinion, and I think the images from 2021 were extremely powerful and really shifted the narrative a lot, too. Afghans deserve to have independence from foreign occupation and at the same time, what is the U.S.’s ethical obligation towards Afghans? And did the U.S. do them justice in a certain way?
So, I feel like it’s complicated. The question shifted from being the US is bad, or imperial to what’s a more nuanced way that we could think about the US obligation, especially given its history of intervention into that region? What is the US obligation towards Afghans and Afghan people? And that’s really been articulated through the recipients of Special Immigrant Visas. But I do think that focus on Special Immigrant Visas at the very least has represented that as a broader question for Afghanistan, writ large.
Jamieson: You talked a bit about the perspective of Afghans themselves, about the US military project, and also about the pathways that the SIV could offer. Can you expand on the motivations and attitudes of the people themselves, either as they seek to work with the American state, or try to seek some kind of pathway to legal permanent residence in the United States? What are their motivations and their desires? And how do they navigate all of this bureaucracy to try to get at these very basic fundamental needs that you’ve discussed?
Ebadi: So there are actually two different Afghanistan SIV programs. What’s interesting is that what’s mostly focused on, and even when I write my work, is Afghan SIVs who were translators with the U.S. military. So that’s actually only one very small part of who Afghan SIVs really are. That program is tiny. Over the span of the sixteen years that the Afghan SIV program existed, only about 750 principal applicants came in through this program.
The other part of the SIV program is way larger, around 21,000 people have come in on it, or nearly 75,000 Afghans if you count dependents and families. And it’s for people that have contracted with the U.S. military. So most people, when they were working for the US military, it was just a job. It might be being a cashier at the cafeteria. It might be driving supplies from one base to another. It might be cleaning, it might be any number of little tasks that goes into the day-to-day operations of the U.S. military. So, a lot of those jobs were just jobs of a functioning economy, let’s say Western kind of economy of military-industrial complex.
It wasn’t necessarily a super political decision for most people. But it was a representation of access to a certain type of very formalized employment, whether or not it was supported by the US military. And like I said, a lot of people felt neutral or even maybe pro [U.S. intervention] in the then post-Taliban era. And so, this was just a basic sense of livelihood for most of these people, whereas I would say the moral complexities of it came in with the small group of people who really worked translating, and this has to do with the fact that they are both insiders to Afghan culture and outsiders to Afghan culture and needing to mediate especially in very rural areas, areas that have a very anti-U.S. sentiment. And those people had more of the job to fit themselves into lines politically, about where they wanted to stand, why they were supporting certain things. But again, that’s kind of the minority of who Afghan SIVs actually are. Most of them are just people that had jobs that were able to make an income and have some kind of financial security through the U.S. involvement.
Jamieson: So for either group, the majority of SIVs or the minority, where do they fit in, in this longer history that you’ve already alluded to, of the Afghan diaspora? Where do those diasporic communities form? And how does this influx of people, under this different legal category, how do they fit into this history?
Ebadi: It’s important to think about the geopolitical context, I think, of moments when Afghans are migrating in huge numbers. The first context being in the Cold War. So, you have to think about global communism versus the U.S. and capitalism and democracy. A lot of Afghans that came throughout the 1980s, even though they came to the United States, were still very critical, very critical of the United States, very critical of the Soviet Union as well, very critical of these big ideas of geopolitical powers that dominate their certain ideologies. Afghanistan also was very involved in certain postcolonial movements in South Asia, and Central Asia. So in Afghanistan before the Soviet invasion, there was a lot of sentiment of anti-imperialism, of independence. And the country had also seen a long period of relative stability. And so there was really the formation of counter movements and the aspirations of what this country could be, and how do we provide for people? And there was a lot of movement and excitement in that. And then the Soviet Union invaded. (And, you know, there’s still this long-running joke of, you know, tensions between Afghans and Russians.) So that was the context in which they immigrated to the U.S. And these Afghans always thought that they would go back. They didn’t foresee the decades of war that we are seeing now.
And so, a lot of them stayed politically active, and they formed two diasporas. One in Northern California. Most famously, people call Fremont, a suburb of San Francisco, little Kabul. That’s one community. The other community in the United States is in Northern Virginia. Not that the Afghans don’t live in other places, but there have been huge, huge communities there. And the Bay Area community is pretty interesting, because it’s gotten this confluence of leftist-type politics, and that’s been really kept up and maintained in the Afghan diaspora.
The Afghan diaspora that’s coming now is a little bit different. However, there’s a lot of solidarity still, there’s a lot of cultural identification. One thing I can say is that Afghans have really retained language and culture despite having lived here for decades now. And I think what I’ve seen is that there is a big feeling of, more than anything, solidarity and acceptance into the community of SIVs. Even though the politics of whether or not the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan was a good thing or a bad thing might not completely align, what you see is a lot of people that are coming into the United States now, were maybe more in support of the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, versus Afghans that have lived here for a couple of decades, were more against it. And despite that, there’s been a show of support to help these people integrate into new lives here. And that gives me a lot of hope for them, too.
Jamieson: How do you investigate these communities? It seems like the direction of your research is, in part, archival, but also you’re doing fieldwork within these communities and trying to figure out what the generational relationships are between immigrants, between the 1980s and now the 2020s. How do you figure all of this out? What forms do your research or your fieldwork take? How do you build a source base for a project like this?
Ebadi: I’m just fascinated by history. I just have this mind that, when I see something that doesn’t make sense, I want to know, where does this come from? What did this seem like 10 years ago? That’s where I go to. When I was thinking about the Special Immigrant Visa at first, I was also very fascinated by apparent contradictions. Like, how is it that somebody can be an intermediary for this extremely violent encounter of militarism? How does someone reconcile that? Why do they do that? And that desire to understand why, and also how certain structural issues place people into positions where they have to make certain choices? This is why I’m interested in the Special Immigrant Visa. Then from there, I was like, when did this visa start? All of these things.
So what I’ve done a lot is look back into Congressional archives. And I’m really interested in the tiny little stories: that little thing that the President said, or the statement and the research report that was commissioned by so-and-so senator that really swayed the vote to make this certain type of category that became legible. What I’ve done is really look into archives and mostly use government and congressional archives. They look a lot into the dailies and the speeches, and what committees were meeting on what day, based around a general framework of knowledge of major immigration reform laws. So I make a skeleton in a certain way. Like, I know that national origins quotas were really important in the early 1900s. Okay, well, from there, who was against it? Who was for it? Why, what was the headline of the news around that time? Really trying to contextualize and in some ways understand the psychology behind the politics – maybe that’s not the right word, but the reason and the feeling and the sentiment and the motivation. And that really fascinates me.
There’s still this human and embodied aspect of my archival work. It’s not just reading a legal document. And that’s what I really look for. It’s easier obviously, hopefully, to find the embodied element when you’re talking with people, but I try to make those two things come into conversation. Even if I’m having conversations with interlocutors, I will say, “did you know that this visa that you had, it was actually, it was created at this time? What do you think about that?” Really bringing participants into conversation, so that I’m not coming into something as, “I’m the expert, and I know XY and Z things.” I think my work with people – I have to be honest – is greatly facilitated by the fact that I am part of the Afghan diaspora too. I’m proud to say it. No one comes into any sort of research with no bias, with no position, we all bring our full selves into the work that we do, even as much as we try and be impartial. But that being said, this was a big reason why I did want to work with Afghan SIV, because I felt like in a news outlet setting and all of these other types of ways that we’re finding out about Afghans is not actually in a more embodied and culturally sensitive and knowledgeable way. I know a lot about the community, its dynamics, what the political tensions are, through growing up in a very politically active Afghan family. And I felt like it was my job as a PhD student to be able to do this work, because I didn’t know someone else that could have that kind of rapport and trust and insight – it’s really hard to get the trust of an Afghan.
Jamieson: It’s fascinating how you approach your scholarship here, between high politics and embodied history and fieldwork within communities. You say that there are times where you discuss immigration bureaucracy or broader history of immigration policy in your fieldwork. Do you get the sense that people are interested in learning about that, and that they think of themselves as part of some bigger story of U.S. policy, part of some bigger story of a diaspora? Do you get the sense that any of the people you interview or speak with view themselves in the way that you, as a scholar, are also trying to understand them?
Ebadi: Such a good question. Yeah, I think that it falls into these lines that we talked about just a little bit ago, where I think a lot of the diaspora that has been here for a decade or more, two decades, three decades even, is able to integrate this political approach and critique. The people who I work with, who are more recently resettled or resettling as might be expected, are much less invested in that critique and much more focused on just trying to get family to come here, trying to get permanent status.
Another really important and sad thing is that we’ve had so much focus on this Special Immigrant Visa program. But of the people that were evacuated in August 2021, most of them have not been able to adjust to permanent resident status. So they were granted entry into the U.S. on humanitarian parole. And they might have documents that could show that they contracted with the military, or they might not because of the circumstances in which they left. And a lot of times, they might have worked with a contractor of a contractor of the US military. I mean, there was so much disarray, as might be expected in a huge military complex such as what happened in Afghanistan. So these people don’t necessarily have the documentation to be able to prove that they qualify for an SIV status.
A humanitarian parole visa is good for two years. And after that two years, if you don’t adjust to either a refugee status or an asylum status or some other kind of status, you are no longer legally allowed to be in the United States. There’s a huge crisis that’s going on right now (alongside the crisis of “what happens to my friends and family that are still there”) of, “wow, okay, my parole status ends August of this year.” So it’s timely to be talking about this.
Now, it’s not just the anniversary of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, it’s also a time when thousands of Afghans don’t know if they will be able to stay in this country or not. And trying to create narratives of asylum saying, “I’m scared of going back because of this, or because of that,” and trying to convince immigration officers of that, instead of using the SIV – so the SIV isn’t even being used. And yet here we have all the news outlets still like, “oh, this Special Immigrant and people that we left behind,” and that’s not even the visa that we’re using for Afghans now.
So people, in that sense, are interested, but more in the self-preservation of, “well, could I get, how can I get an SIV?” But at the same time, they are so knowledgeable about the nitty gritty of how our immigration system works. And I think the privilege of not having to have your life depend on that can allow one to have a step back in the broader view, versus, these people need to figure this out now. Even though they’re super excited and interested to talk about it, it’s just a different orientation towards it.
Jamieson: So for a lot of people who are on humanitarian parole, and who are being left out of these broader public discourses about the SIV and Afghan resettlement, what kind of resources do they have to help them navigate these crises? What tools do they have, as they try to figure all of this out in what clearly is a very anxious, hectic period right now?
Ebadi: Very little. When you’re on humanitarian parole, you are given certain, let’s say, public benefits that are also afforded to refugees. That means housing stipends, that means food stamps, that means you can have authorization to work. Needless to say, these people don’t have much of their money in the way of their own resources, they are having to pay out of pocket for immigration proceedings for the applications that they’re submitting. Another thing that’s been huge: some of the first refugee legislation started around the 1950s, maybe just a little before, and then really started to solidify in around the 1980s. And since then, unsurprisingly, funding for refugees and refugee adjacent services has just gone down and down. Whereas there used to be, I believe, two years of support, for people who are recently resettling now it’s gone down to just a few months. So they have very little.
There’s also been a lot of privatizing in terms of supporting immigrants. If you look at immigration websites, and at the U.S. government, and look at the Office of Refugee Resettlement, you can see that they are actually saying, “hey, we’re recruiting private sponsors,” meaning that private sponsors, could be a community, could be a person, put down money and say “we will host and support this refugee until they’re resettled, they have a job, etcetera.” So a lot of that isn’t even happening through federal channels and state channels.
Adjusting for status, hiring an immigration lawyer is completely out of reach for these people. So a lot will look towards nonprofit organizations or community service organizations. A lot of people are basically piecemealing this together. Because, if you can imagine, many don’t speak English, and they’re having to craft an asylum narrative and do this whole complicated thing that I barely understand in English and submit all of this. So they really are reliant on these informal networks of being able to find some sort of community organization that happens to help Afghans, which obviously vary in quality.
I wanted to talk a little bit, also, about the different ways that this could turn out, because this is also a political issue where there needs to be a program. And it’s been proposed that there’d be a program that humanitarian parolees are granted, pretty much guaranteed barring background checks and things like that, permanent status; there has been a bill that’s been proposed but has not been passed. But it’s totally possible to do, rather than making Afghans go through this long, very bureaucratic legal process that’s totally uncertain.
And we know this is possible, because we’ve seen it done in the case, for example, of Ukraine, and for Ukrainian refugees. Looking at that model, I think, a lot of us that are advocates for the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan would hope to see some kind of a program, similar paths for Afghans. There’s this really great immigration advocacy organization called Project ANAR. Anar means “pomegranate” in Farsi, and they’ve done some research and compiled some data comparing the Afghan and Ukraine parole programs. This is between July 1st 2021, and May 1st 2022: Afghan humanitarian parole program has received over 66,000 applications. And 123 of those have been approved. And nearly $20 million dollars has been collected in fees from those applications. In comparison, the Uniting for Ukraine program has received 88,000 applications for humanitarian parole, and 68,000 of those have been approved, and no fees have been collected from that program. So that’s not to say Afghans [don’t] have all the solidarity with Ukrainians. Afghans know what this is like. We’ve been through this history over and over again. And what we hope is to also have some sort of a program that recognizes and acknowledges Afghans, especially those Afghans who are here who have had connections to supporting the U.S. military.
Jamieson: Well, Sherine, thank you for sharing your work. It’s fascinating work, and it’s clearly extremely timely, pressing, and significant.
Ebadi: Thank you so much.