The Cable

Special Visas for Afghan Interpreters Are Running Out

Lawmakers, advocates worry Washington is sending a terrible signal to friends.

MIAN POSHTEH, AFGHANISTAN- JULY 14:  U.S. Marine Sergeant Nathan Harris from Yadkinville, North Carolina (C) with the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, RCT 2nd Battalion 8th Marines Echo Co. speaks to an Afghan man through a Marine interpreter (L) after seeing suspicious activity near their base on July 14, 2009 in Mian Poshteh, Afghanistan . The Marines are part of Operation Khanjari which was launched to take areas in the Southern Helmand Province that Taliban fighters are using as a resupply route and to help the local Afghan population prepare for the upcoming presidential elections.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
MIAN POSHTEH, AFGHANISTAN- JULY 14: U.S. Marine Sergeant Nathan Harris from Yadkinville, North Carolina (C) with the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, RCT 2nd Battalion 8th Marines Echo Co. speaks to an Afghan man through a Marine interpreter (L) after seeing suspicious activity near their base on July 14, 2009 in Mian Poshteh, Afghanistan . The Marines are part of Operation Khanjari which was launched to take areas in the Southern Helmand Province that Taliban fighters are using as a resupply route and to help the local Afghan population prepare for the upcoming presidential elections. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul has officially stopped scheduling interviews for Afghan military interpreters applying to emigrate to the United States.

Afghanistan is not listed in either of U.S. President Donald Trump’s travel bans. Instead, a government program that resettles Afghans who face threats because they worked with U.S. troops has run out of Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs). It’s estimated that more than 10,000 applicants are currently still in line to obtain the visas. 

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) called for Congress to approve new SIVs and said she would soon introduce new legislation.

“Allowing this program to lapse sends the message to our allies in Afghanistan that the United States has abandoned them,” she said in a statement.

The Afghan SIV program, modeled on a similar one for Iraqi interpreters, has existed since 2009. But advocacy groups have long complained the number of visas was not keeping pace with demand, and that backlogs leave the interpreters in grave danger for years. As U.S. military presence in Afghanistan wound down, interpreters have increasingly been targeted by the Taliban and local militias because of their visibility.

“This is a betrayal of the brave men and women who stood by the side of U.S. armed forces in the face of great personal risk,” said Scott Cooper, founder of Veterans for American Ideals.

On Thursday, a top U.S. general said more U.S. troops would be needed in Afghanistan to battle ISIS and the Taliban and support the government in Kabul, making the issue of translator visas seemingly even more important.

Last year the future of the SIV program — usually uncontroversial in Congress — became embroiled in larger debates over immigration. Despite a concerted push by Shaheen and Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.) for legislation to approve 4,000 new visas for Afghans, new SIVs were not included in the annual defense policy bill for the first time.

By the end of the year, Congress did reauthorize the program, but only allotted 1,500 new visas and tightened eligibility. Those visas are running out even as American military official are requesting to increase troops in Afghanistan and the United States is considering deploying more troops to Syria and Iraq. 

“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,” Mac McEachin, of the International Refugee Assistance Project at the Urban Justice Center, told the New York Times.

The SIV program became a particular focus after Trump’s first sweeping travel ban included Iraqis, affecting interpreters who had already received authorization to move to the United States but were suddenly barred from entering. Under pressure from veterans and Pentagon officials concerned about alienating crucial wartime allies, the Trump administration eventually changed course. Trump’s revised travel ban, scheduled to go into effect on Mar. 16, did not include Iraq on the list of nationalities barred from entering the United States for 90 days.

“It feels like one fight after another to make sure this program isn’t torn apart,” U.S. Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), said in statement. “We have a bipartisan coalition in the House and Senate that are working to keep these people safe. Yet, Congress is still failing to do its job. It shouldn’t be this hard.”

Photo credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Kavitha Surana is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy, where she produces breaking news and original reports with a particular focus on immigration, counterterrorism, and border security policy. Previously, Kavitha worked at New York magazine’s Bedford + Bowery blog, CNNMoney, The Associated Press in Italy, and Fareed Zakaria GPS and has freelanced from Italy and Germany for publications like Quartz, Al Jazeera America, OZY, and GlobalPost/PRI. In 2015, she was awarded a Fulbright trip to Germany, as well as a grant from the Heinrich Böll Foundation to report on migration and integration. She also reported from Rwanda and Senegal. Kavitha studied European history at Columbia University and holds a master’s degree in journalism and European studies from New York University. She has studied in Italy and Peru and speaks Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and French. @ksurana6

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