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Let’s Learn About: Special Immigrant Visas

At World Relief Memphis, we often reflect on America as a country of immigrants and displaced persons. Throughout the generations, people have immigrated to the U.S. and established new lives. That continues today!

Special immigrant visa holders are just one of these immigrant groups.

The amount of competing information around immigration can be overwhelming. But World Relief has been welcoming immigrants in partnership with churches and compassionate individuals like you since the 1970s, and for over 10 years here in Memphis!

World Relief Memphis specifically assists those who are seeking safety through various pathways established by the United States Government. In this five-part series, with help from our Initial Welcoming Services and Newcomer Outreach Service teams, we will be sharing the various different legal pathways to the U.S., how those pathways began, how we come alongside new arrivals, and how you can join us in welcome.


Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) is a U.S. Government immigration program created to provide a path to resettlement and citizenship in the U.S. for those who are danger due to their work with the U.S. military abroad. Since 1965, after amending the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), the SIV program has been available to persons who meet this description. In the past two decades, the most common use of this program has been for those “who worked with the U.S. Armed Forces or under Chief of Mission authority as a translator or interpreter in Iraq or Afghanistan.”

*To learn more about the history of the SIV program see the U.S Department of State travel page.

The U.S. Special Immigrant Visa Process

The process for becoming a SIV holder, while sometimes seen as a “fast track” through resettlement, is tedious and requires very specific documentation and stages of approval.

The SIV process is as follows (U.S. Department of State):

  • The applicant must be a national of Iraq or Afghanistan.
  • Must have worked directly with the U.S. Armed Forces or under COM authority as a translator or interpreter for a period of at least 12 months.
  • Have a favorable written recommendation from a General or Flag Officer in the chain of command of the U.S. Armed Forces unit that was supported by them, as a translator or interpreter, or from the Chief of Mission from the embassy where they worked.
  • Submit a petition with the USCIS.
  • Go through processing through Department of State’s National Visa Center.
  • Complete an online visa application.
  • Collect, scan, and submit required documents.
  • Receive an interview date.
  • Go through interview process.
  • Be approved or denied the visa.

In the past the length of the SIV approval process was generally 9 months compared to the average refugee approval and resettlement time which is 18 months to 3 years. Now, due to the recent fall of Kabul, Afghanistan in 2021, the need for this status has increased substantially creating a new average wait time to 3.5 years.

What We Do

Once the SIV case is approved by the State Department, they are now free to travel to the U.S. While some SIV holders are able to find passage on their own, they are often matched with a resettlement agency like World Relief. So, just like when a refugee case has been approved, World Relief Memphis is notified through our Home Office and preparations begin.

Our Initial Welcoming Services (IWS) team assigns a caseworker and is given access to the case specifics, including a general background of who is coming and if they have specific needs to be considered. During this time our Church and Community Engagement is recruiting volunteers for housing setup, airport pick up, or potentially a Good Neighbor Team.

Over the first 90 days, the caseworker aids the newly arrived individual or family in accessing their Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) benefits. This includes signing up for Refugee Cash Assistance, their Social Security Card, Medicare, SNAP, and other eligible government assistance programs. These programs are key for helping SIV holders become self-sufficient.

Once the initial 90 day period nears an end, clients may be matched with other volunteers and enrolled in eligible programs for extended case management:

  • Holistic Support Services: aids clients in health and wellness goals, especially clients with additional vulnerabilities
  • Refugee and Immigrant Youth Services: provides school enrollment services, group mentoring, and one-on-one mentoring where refugee and immigrant youth learn how to set and meet goals in their personal, school, and post-school life.
  • The Connect Language Center: English as a Second Language (ESL) program open to program participants and the general public. Here students are enrolled in ESL classes of varying levels depending on starting knowledge.

How You can Help

The immigration system is broken and it can be overwhelming to learn about and know where you fit in. While we might be tempted to look away, the love of Christ compels us to turn toward the need — to consistently and lovingly step toward those who are hurting. If you’re like us, you’re asking yourself: How can I make a difference and create lasting change when the problems in the world are so big?  

The good news is none of us has to take this journey alone. World Relief Memphis has been present and working in this city for over 10 years and is equipped with 80 years of connections and expertise through the World Relief global network. Most importantly, we have been partnering with you, the local church and community to make Memphis a more just and welcoming community.

Here are 4 ways you can be a part of lasting change:

  • Learn: There is always something to learn in the resettlement world. World Relief Memphis has a Workshop with courses to learn more about cross-culture friendships with our newest neighbors, reflections on biblical thoughts about immigration, and more!

  • Advocate: You have a voice to change the immigration system for the better! Check out our Advocate page  to see how you can use your voice to advocate for the passing of the Afghan Adjustment Act. Following the fall of Kabul nearly two years ago, over 70,000 Afghans were evacuated to the U.S. and given humanitarian parolee status because the aid and support they provided to the U.S. military put their lives at risk. Today, many of these brave men, women and their children remain in legal limbo as their parole and work authorizations are soon set to expire. The AAA would give Afghans in the U.S. a pathway to apply for permanent legal status through something like the SIV program. Returning to Afghanistan is not an option for our allies — will you help ensure their safety just as they helped ensure the safety of so many of our military service members in Afghanistan?

  • Volunteer: Want to walk alongside individuals and families here in Memphis? Check out our volunteer page to see what opportunity is right for you. You can do everything from apartment set ups, driving clients to ESL classes, mentoring refugee and immigrant youth, to bring in a Good Neighbor Team where you get to welcome and walk alongside a refugee family for the first 6 months of their time in the U.S.

  • Give: When you give to World Relief Memphis, whether it be once or monthly, monetarily or gift in kind, you are making a big difference in the lives refugees and other immigrants in vulnerable situations.

Writer: Kara Spencer

Communication Coordinator at World Relief Memphis, graduate of Harding University, & Memphis native.

If you would like to learn more about World Relief Memphis in the coming months, follow us on social media and sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date on events and volunteer opportunities.

If you are searching for an opportunity to begin making a bigger impact, join our new monthly giving program, The Path, for exclusive updates, virtual events, prayer chains, and stories of hope from the women, men, and children whose lives you change.

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