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Afghan Translators Who Helped the US Military Could Lose Their Shot at a Visa

A specialty visa program that helps Afghan translators who worked with the US military might not get renewed, leaving thousands without their promised reward.

by Ted Hesson
Jul 1 2016, 8:00pm

Photo courtesy of Mohebullah "Archie" Archiwal

When Mohebullah Archiwal began working with the United States Army as an interpreter in Afghanistan, he had one goal: help remove the Taliban from power and usher in a safe future for his family, who had lived as exiles in Pakistan for nearly two decades.

As an interpreter, Archiwal—who goes by Archie—wasn't armed, but his role was arguably as dangerous as those of the soldiers he worked with. He approached Afghan civilians during missions in potentially hostile villages, and over the course of several years, he says he was injured four times by improvised explosive devices.

But that was the least of his problems. During his service, Archie says his aunt and two young cousins were shot to death in what he views as retaliation by the Taliban for his work with the US Army. In 2013, he says a different cousin was killed by a homemade bomb that had been buried outside his family home.

"When he stepped out, I heard a big blast," Archie told VICE. "I said, 'Oh my God.' I knew that it was in front of my house, but I was not expecting my cousin."

Anxious to leave Afghanistan, he applied for a "special immigrant visa," which allows Afghans and Iraqis who assisted the US military as interpreters, translators, and other roles to seek refuge in the United States. He was approved in 2014 and now lives in Wichita, Kansas. The visa provided a potentially life-saving escape from Afghanistan for Archie. For other Afghan interpreters and translators, however, the chance to resettle in the US might be slipping away.

The special immigrant visa program for Afghans and Iraqis began in 2006 as a reward to the translators and interpreters who had risked their lives to help American troops. To obtain one of the visas, an applicant needs to prove they were employed by the US government or an affiliated organization during the military conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan, produce a letter of recommendation from a supervisor, pass a background check, and demonstrate that they face a serious threat as a result of their employment. Applicants have faced lengthy processing times in the past—some, who waited years, even sued the federal government—but the average wait time for applicants from Kabul is a little over one year, according to a January report by the US State Department.

The visas are distributed under the three programs, only one of which is permanent (it also happens to be the smallest, issuing no more than 50 visas each year). The other two programs—one for Iraqis and another for Afghans—are temporary. Between 2008 and 2013, the program for Iraqis gave out a maximum of 5,000 visas per year to principal applicants (not including family members), with leftover visas carrying over into the next year. Congress extended the program in 2013, adding 2,500 more visas and authorizing it to continue until all visas in the bank were exhausted. Similarly, the program for Afghans provided a maximum of 1,500 visas per year for principal applicants between 2009 to 2013, with extensions that made 7,000 more visas available until the end of this year.

As of March, nearly 40,700 visa applicants and their families have been approved under one of these programs. But with the Afghan program set to expire at the end of the year, many could be left behind. Roughly 12,000 Afghans and their families are waiting for a special immigrant visa, according to data obtained by VICE from the State Department, but as of mid-February, only 3,800 visas remained.

A bipartisan group of senators had expected to pass the extension of the Afghan program as part of an annual defense bill—it's been an easy sell in the past—but Senator Mike Lee, a Republican from Utah, blocked the effort earlier this month in an effort to force a vote on his own unrelated amendment. Apparently, it's just politics: Lee has said he supports the visa program. But it won't be included in the annual defense bill, as it has for the past two years.

With that option suddenly off the table, Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire, lobbied to have a 4,000-visa extension included in a foreign operations spending bill. The visa extension—estimated to cost $446 million over ten years—was added to the Senate version of the bill on Wednesday, but passage of the measure is far from certain. The House version of the legislation does not contain the same provision and the visa program could be downsized or dropped altogether before the measure passes.

The failure to pass the visa extension this year is unusual, according to Kristen Aster, a policy expert at the International Rescue Committee, an organization that assists refugees. "There's traditionally been really strong bipartisan support for this program, because everyone can agree that people who have served us faithful and are now persecuted should have protection and shouldn't be left behind," she told VICE.

That's not to say the program doesn't have opponents. Senator Jeff Sessions, a Republican from Alabama and an immigration hardliner, said in 2013 that extending or expanding the special immigrant visa program "raises a number of concerns, including a high likelihood of exploitation by al-Qaeda terrorists." And with Donald Trump's calls to ban immigrants from countries with a "proven history of terrorism," a visa program for Afghans could seem controversial.

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That said, refugees tend to have some of the most intense screening within the US immigration system, according to Rey Koslowski, an associate professor at the University at Albany-SUNY and an expert in homeland security issues. Special immigrant visas in particular come with an added layer of security, since the applicants are people who aided US citizens in Afghanistan and Iraq. "These are individuals who have worked for the United States, who have people who could vouch for them," Koslowski told VICE. "There should be fewer security concerns with bringing them in."

Besides repaying Afghans for their service, a program like this can help generate much-needed cooperation from locals, according to Scott Cooper, a 20-year veteran of the US Marine Corps who now advocates for refugees with the non-profit organization Human Rights First. He argues that United States needs to make good on its promises if it hopes to inspire support in future wars.

"These are folks that really stuck their neck out to work with us, and their lives are in danger now," Cooper told VICE. "That's part of keeping our word and not leaving anyone behind."

Military leaders agree, including US Army General John Nicholson, the top American military commander in Afghanistan, who recently warned that "abandoning this program would significantly undermine our credibility" and "bolster the propaganda of our enemies."

The sentiment also carries over to troops on the ground, who rely on interpreters and translators to communicate effectively and keep them safe. "Interpreters are a vital asset. I don't know very many people in the Army who can fluently speak native languages like Pashto," said Joshua Clark, who spent eight years in the US Army and did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he met Archie in the 4th Infantry Division. "If there was a situation that we weren't sure about, or if it involved a local, Archie would always be the first one to volunteer and say, 'Look, I'll handle this.'"

Through a twist of fate, Clark now also lives in Wichita, and he recently reconnected with Archie over lunch. His former interpreter seems to be adjusting to life in the Midwest and bringing a bit of his own culture: he's playing in a cricket league, a sport he mastered during his time in Pakistan.

For his part, Archie hopes to complete his high school equivalency degree, attend college, and eventually become a dentist. He ended up in Kansas on the recommendation from a friend in the Army, who told him "Kansas is like Afghanistan," with its open spaces and agricultural communities. Somehow, the comparison makes sense.

"I'm not a big city guy and I was looking to go to a small town," Archie told VICE. "The people are open, they're accepting of every culture. I feel it's like a home, actually."

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