Despite Bombings, Advocates Still Hope for More Visas for Afghan Interpreters

Despite Bombings, Advocates Still Hope for More Visas for Afghan Interpreters

A program to speed visas for Afghan interpreters who worked for the United States during the war was already facing dubious approval by Congress this year. After last weekend’s bomb attack, now it may be on even shakier ground.

Established in 2009, the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program helps bring foreign interpreters to America who served alongside U.S. troops and diplomats, and now face retaliation at home.

Congress must renew the program and allocate more visas every year. But in an election year colored by xenophobic rhetoric, the visa program has become both a sticking point and a bargaining chip for some conservative lawmakers trying to limit immigration.

Still, many prominent lawmakers are adamant that it be extended. Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker of Tennessee, a Republican, told Foreign Policy, “I do think this should be a priority for us. Those people are subject to beheadings when found.”

Yet extending the visa program was left out of House and Senate versions of the annual defense policy bill, despite a concerted push by Sens. John McCain, the GOP’s 2008 presidential nominee, and Democrat Jeanne Shaheen. They expect the program will be discussed in ongoing negotiations but have no guarantee it will be part of the final bill when it goes to a vote, most likely at the year’s end.

With the visa program due to expire at the end of December, that doesn’t leave much time for the more than 10,000 interpreters and their family members still hoping to move to America, according to advocacy group No One Left Behind say.  A concerted media push was underway this past month to revive the issue: the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal both ran editorials recommending swift action.

But after bombs allegedly planted by a U.S.-naturalized Afghan immigrant shook New York and New Jersey last weekend and rekindled public anxiety over terrorism, the program’s fate seems even more uncertain.

The suspected bomber, Ahmad Khan Rahami, was naturalized as an American citizen after his family moved to the U.S. under a regular asylum visa, and never worked for the U.S. military. But GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump pounced on the attacks to double down on his proposal to ban Muslim immigrants, even calling for racial profiling.

“These attacks and many others were made possible because of our extremely open immigration system, which fails to properly vet and screen the individuals or families coming into our country,” Trump said at a Sept. 19 rally.

The blasts wounded 29 people, and fueled fears of terrorism, but were not fatal. Still, they spurred concerns that their ultimate impact could doom efforts to extend the special visa program beyond the year.

“Last night I saw the news and I was so sad, that’s how people will look at me and other Afghans,” said an Afghan interpreter for the U.S. Army who recently moved to the United States under the program and asked to be identified only as Nick. “I hope it won’t affect the SIVs because there are thousands of people waiting for their visas in Afghanistan, and they are living in hiding just like I did for two years.”

There are currently fewer than 2,000 visas available through the special program, and more than 10,000 Afghans and their families waiting for them. It is already common for applicants to wait years to obtain a visa to come to the United States, sometimes facing death threats in the meantime as extremist retribution for working for the U.S. government.

Jennifer Quigley, a refugee advocate at the non-profit Human Rights First, said trying to extend the visa program this year was particularly difficult. Republican lawmakers vocally opposed to immigration, including Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Grassley and Sen. Jeff Sessions, a senior advisor to Trump, received a boost of attention from voters fired up by Trump.

“What we have is a few key members that are anti-immigration that are in positions of power vis-a-vis this program and have raised objections to it, and that is what has caused problems,” Quigley told FP. This year marked the first time the Afghan interpreters’ visa program was not included in the annual defense policy bill, she added.

Quigley and others voiced hope the bombings won’t have a chilling effect on Congress. The attacks, she said, “won’t change the equation for those who are already supportive” and know Rahami came to the U.S. as a child. “That’s completely different from adults who already work for the U.S. government, and put their lives on the line for the U.S. government in Afghanistan,” she said.

Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also blamed anti-immigrant sentiment for slowing negotiations.

“I am concerned it won’t get done, and yes, I think [Trump’s] rhetoric makes it more difficult to get it done,” he told FP. “I think the anti-immigrant sentiment makes it more difficult for any type of special visas for people coming here.”

But, he added, “there’s a couple vehicles” to push the extension through despite opposition, like making it a last-minute add to the defense policy bill or the government’s massive annual spending plan expected to be passed later this year after a short-term extension. Still, both would leave Congress dealing with the program uncomfortably close to the wire.

“There’s a couple really big hurdles,” Cardin said, “but I think they’re pretty close.”

Reporting contributed by Molly O’Toole.

This story has been updated to include the full name of the group No One Left Behind.

Photo Credit: JOE RADLE/Getty Images