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The interpreters who worked for American and NATO forces during the recent Afghanistan war are among America’s bravest and most loyal allies. They played an essential role educating foreign forces about the local culture they so badly needed to understand, and sourcing intelligence.
As the US is withdrawing from Afghanistan, the tens of thousands of Afghans who put their and their families’ lives at risk because they believed promises would be fulfilled by the US should now be offered safe haven. Instead, a majority of the interpreters are being either denied transit to the US, or left in limbo for years on end.
I spoke with several interpreters now living across the world about their experiences since ending their work with the US and NATO, and the promises that have not been fulfilled.
The Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) organizes law students and lawyers to develop and enforce a system of legal and human rights for refugees through a combination of direct legal aid and broad policy advocacy. IRAP utilizes a network of more than 1,000 law students and lawyers at 26 law schools and more than 50 global law firms to provide direct legal assistance to refugees and their families, give clinical legal education to law students, and do policy advocacy work. Its clients include Iraqis and Afghans persecuted because of their work with the United States; survivors of trafficking and domestic and sexual abuse; persecuted LGBT individuals; children with medical emergencies; and survivors of torture. It leverages its individual casework to advocate for broad systemic reforms within national and international refugee resettlement regimes, enabling refugees and displaced persons to better enforce their human rights.
For more information, visit refugeerights.org. If you or someone you know needs legal assistance, please email email@example.com.
Congress created the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program for Afghan Allies in order to provide life-saving protection to the thousands of Afghan men and women who risked their lives to assist with the US mission in Afghanistan. The program went through various iterations following the US invasion of Afghanistan, but its final version passed in May of 2009 as the Afghan Allies Protection Act. The Act provided for 1,500 visas per year for five years for Afghans who could demonstrate that their lives were at risk because they had provided “faithful and valuable service” to the United States in Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, the legislation has largely failed to live up to its name. During the first three years of the program, 2010–2012, the State Department approved a paltry 32 visas.
The failure of the US Embassy in Kabul to get the program up and running, according to the clear congressional mandate, may have been deliberate. In 2012, the Washington Post reported that, following the passage of the legislation, officials at the US embassy in Kabul worried that the program could drain the US embassy of local employees. Then–US Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry went so far as to cable then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in February 2010 to protest the program.
“This act could drain this country of our very best civilian and military partners: our Afghan employees,” he wrote. “[The SIV program could] have a significant deleterious impact on staffing and morale, as well as undermining our overall mission in Afghanistan. Local staff are not easily replenished in a society at 28 percent literacy.”
The suggestion that the success of the US mission in Afghanistan somehow rested on systematically breaking our promises to protect those who risked their lives to serve with us is naïve at best. Even under the coldest utilitarian calculus, where the value of our interpreters’ lives is solely measured by their ability to continue to work for us, they are not going to be of much service if they are beheaded by the Taliban.
But more to the point, what kind of message does this send to those whose cooperation we seek? There are serious national security implications to failing our allies on the ground. In a region where the United States is already hemorrhaging credibility, do we really want to desert the small group of people who truly believed in our mission? And at some point, we’ll be in another country, and we’ll need in-country support. And when we ask people on the ground to work with us, maybe they will think twice before signing on.
Faithful and Valuable Service
Applicants for SIVs must first demonstrate that they provided at least 12 months of “faithful and valuable service” to the United States. Under the legislation, this is relatively straightforward — a US citizen supervisor (typically a service member or veteran) writes a letter attesting to the value, loyalty, and length of service of the applicant.
In practice, the US Embassy in Kabul has employed varying and imprecise standards in evaluating the “faithful and valuable service” requirement, denying deserving applicants only to have to evaluate the applicant again when he or she re-applies. It’s actually the embassy that often requests applicants to re-apply if they are rejected because it has no kind of formal appeals process. Some of these internal standards have been improved after legislation, congressional inquiries, and media attention have laid them bare. But many inefficient and imprecise systems remain. It is currently our understanding that when SIV applicants’ personnel files have any negative information in them, applicants are automatically rejected. However, in many instances, such negative information — such as employment termination — when contextualized, is clearly not the product of unfaithful or invaluable service, and the applicant is not at fault, as numerous US citizens can vouch.
This results in applicants getting rejected for preposterous reasons. We have seen applicants who were fired from their position of employment because they did not get a passing score on a language test the 10th time they took it after passing it the first nine. The embassy does not scratch beyond the surface of the files; they just see that the applicant was “let go” and reject the SIV application. In many other cases, applicants are rejected because they have failed a polygraph test implemented by the defense contractor that retained them. Not only are such tests not a formal US government procedure (rather, they’re the internal policy of a private company) but the polygraph itself is so notoriously unreliable that it is banned from being used as evidence in US courts.
For example, “Mark” worked as an interpreter for US forces for three years in some of the most dangerous provinces in Afghanistan. His supervisors wrote that he is “by far the most fluent and skilled linguist in our Task Force.” One recommender recounted that he saved the lives of six US soldiers:
“My Platoon was struck with an IED and [Mark] was instrumental in evacuating the casualties. His actions were crucial in saving the lives of 6 Coalition Forces soldiers in my Platoon. This action alone is enough to warrant citizenship. I have never witnessed this type of valor and courage from a linguist.”
In retaliation for Mark’s loyalty to the US troops, the Taliban first dropped two death threats at the door of his home. Then they left an IED and nearly killed him and his family members.
Mark had to take a regular Dari language test administered by Mission Essential Personnel (MEP), the defense contractor that retains and subcontracts most of the linguists in Afghanistan. Mark had passed the same test previously. However, one of these tests was administered by a local national from a rival tribe, who failed Mark. MEP then fired Mark several weeks later, over the protests from his Task Force supervisors. Mark approached MEP to re-take the test but they refused. Despite having saved the lives of six US soldiers and having the support of multiple US soldiers, the embassy found that the “most skilled” linguist who evinced unique “valor and courage” did not provide “faithful and valuable” service and revoked his embassy approval. Only after Mark appealed and retained legal assistance did the embassy reverse its decision.
In another example, “Mohammed” worked for the US Marines in Afghanistan for more than five years. Periodically, he was given a counterintelligence (CI) test, which involved routine questions about his affiliations and family. In 2013, he was notified that he had failed his last CI test, even though he had given the exact same answers to the exact same questions that he had always given. He was not given any explanation about why he failed; the failure simply resulted in his automatic job termination. It also resulted in his SIV application’s being denied for failure to show “faithful and valuable service” and for “derogatory information,” despite the continued, emphatic support from his US Marine supervisors. With no way to appeal the results of his CI test conducted by his employer, MEP, or to overturn the decision on his SIV denial, Mohammed is jobless and living under constant threat from the Taliban. Just a few months ago, the Taliban shot at his bedroom window. Mohammed feels as if he is now living under a death sentence.
These baseless SIV denials are something that the State Department could easily fix by issuing internal guidance that directs SIV application reviewers to look into applicants’ personnel files in instances of negative employment information, and to determine whether the context renders the negative employment information irrelevant to the “faithful and valuable service” determination.
A Serious and Ongoing Threat
The second SIV requirement is that the applicant has experienced or is experiencing a serious and ongoing threat as a result of his or her work for the US government. This also seems like a relatively simple principle to implement: The United States has thousands of pages of federal case law in the domestic asylum context that defines “credible threat” and “persecution.” And just as a basic intuitive matter, it seems clear that if someone is trying to kill you, you are probably under a serious threat.
Unfortunately, this requirement has also proved oddly complicated for the US government to implement. For a period of time, the embassy in Kabul — which is staffed almost exclusively by foreign service officers who are not even permitted to leave the confines of the embassy and have no field experience — did not seem to believe that interpreters were in any kind of peril and that their claims about “serious threat” were exaggerated. We saw a rash of applications, including those of people who had been shot at and received numerous night letters who were denied approval because they were not under any “threat.”
This thinking appeared limited to those whose lives and work existed solely within the walls of the US embassy. Servicemen and women, journalists, civilians — anyone out in society — universally agreed that Afghans whose affiliation with the United States was known were in constant mortal peril.
IRAP has been working to get these adverse decisions overturned, but this requires a lengthy appeals process, ironically putting applicants even more at risk. As long as the appeal is pending, the ally is still in danger. As one interpreter asked in a Washington Post article, “What’s a serious ongoing threat for them? Do they need someone to bring in my decapitated head?”
Thankfully, in the past year, the State Department’s approval rate for SIVs has increased dramatically. Between October 2013 and June 2014, 2,300 Afghan SIVs were issued to our allies. But as State’s SIV issuance rate has improved, the long waits that SIV applicants experience are due less to State’s determination of the merits of the applications, and more to the security-check process applicants must undergo before being issued their visas (also referred to as “administrative processing” or “background check”). Applicants continue to wait years in extremely unsafe conditions for their security checks to go through, even when State has already determined that they meet all of the requirements for their SIVs. This problem costs both money and human lives.
In the lead-up to the end of the last federal fiscal year, September 30, 2013, the Iraqi SIV program was set to expire, and the administration undertook an interagency process to try and streamline the security-check process. Some progress was made. However, more improvements are still necessary.
“Alaa” worked as the deputy director for a US government contractor for a number of years. Due to the direct threats that her family faced on account of her work, she applied for an SIV several years ago. Two years ago, her 3-year-old son was diagnosed with leukemia. Alaa’s case is now languishing in security checks while her son’s health is rapidly deteriorating. Doctors have told her that with proper treatment, he has a 90 percent chance of survival. Unfortunately, Alaa’s son doesn’t have access to the services or medicine he needs. Alaa is desperate to get her son proper treatment and to get her whole family to safety, but she has no idea who to contact or how to expedite her case at this stage.
“Harry” is in a similar predicament. He spent seven years working for the US Army in Kunar Province. On patrol with US troops, he came under enemy fire multiple times, and when he applied for an SIV, nine US soldiers served as recommenders and recounted his “impeccable character” and “unwavering loyalty,” and noted he was under serious threat. In 2010 the Taliban burned his car, and in 2011 they denounced him in a radio broadcast as working with US troops. He began his SIV application in 2012, and almost two years later he has still not obtained an SIV. In October 2013, the Taliban’s efforts to capture or kill Harry intensified and he was the target of an unsuccessful Taliban ambush when he returned home from the US base. Though he narrowly evaded being killed, upon arriving home, a neighbor warned him that the Taliban had been talking about killing him. At that point, he had been waiting on his background check for three months, and he and his counsel alerted the embassy in Kabul that he was under immediate threat. The embassy did not respond to his requests for expedited processing, and only emailed months later to require Harry and his wife to pay hundreds of dollars of his minimal savings to obtain new medical checks, because the original medical checks had expired before security checks had cleared. Six months after the attempted assassination, his background check remains pending despite multiple direct threats to his life and the support of nine US soldiers.
When It’s Personal
Even though these Afghan interpreters served alongside us in the war, they are not considered veterans or “warfighters.” As a result, the Department of Defense has largely declined to be involved in the SIV program. They say they don’t have skin in the game.
But for the servicemen and women who served with our Afghan allies, it is deeply personal. Many of the veterans we speak with say, “You know, Mohammed was essentially a part of our unit. And the rest of our unit was able to come back to the US — but not him.” There are so many Americans who served on the ground with these Afghans and feel deeply obligated to them, but that sense of obligation is not felt at the top. When many of our service members leave Afghanistan, they tell their interpreters, “I’m gonna do everything I can to get you to the United States.” They feel this is tantamount to a promise, and that it is a promise they can keep. It is made in good faith: “You saved my life, I’ll save yours.” But they are not aware of the labyrinthine bureaucracy they will face upon returning home and trying to navigate the actual visa process. From what we have seen, this can also contribute to post-traumatic stress among our veterans, who often feel that they left a member of their platoon — their interpreter — behind to die.
It is challenging for us as their advocates as well.
No other legal channel for getting to the United States requires a US citizen to vouch for what a person has done for this country, that they know them personally, and that they are not a security risk. It’s an astounding thing to ask of someone, and it’s a task that is not taken lightly.
We talk to our Afghan allies every day and listen to their stories. Some have worked for the United States for nine or 10 years. You listen to everything they’ve done for us, everything they’ve gone through, everything their family has suffered. Maybe they’ve survived an IED; maybe they’ve been shot; a family member may have been attacked. Throughout the entire conversation, we are figuring out how we can help, running through the paperwork mentally, starting to feel optimistic about helping another Afghan family get to safety — and then we hear that they have failed a single polygraph test, and we know it’s an almost insurmountable obstacle to getting an SIV in the current system. They tell us, “I’ve done everything I can to help the Americans here, and I was told that I am eligible to apply for this program, and now they are telling me I can’t do it.”
Here we are, a nonprofit organization with a network of nearly 1,000 legal representatives in total. We are lawyers and native English speakers; we have Internet access 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And sometimes we can help them, but sometimes we can’t. And we wonder: How do you do this if your English is not so good, if you have no Internet access, you’re in hiding, and someone is trying to kill you?
IRAP has successfully resettled more than 2,500 refugees from throughout Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Middle East. We have successfully advocated for legislation benefiting more than 80,000 Iraqi and Afghan allies of the United States. We are enormously proud of all that we have accomplished in just a few years as an organization. But each time we hear that a client’s application has been denied because he checked the wrong box or took family leave on the wrong day, we can’t help but take it personally, because we do have skin in the game.
The Future of the Program
There is good news. The State Department has owned up publicly to its past failings. “Bluntly stated,” wrote Secretary John Kerry in the Los Angeles Times in June 2014, “the process wasn't keeping up with the demand.” And State has implemented changes over the past year that prove it can process these visas at a healthy clip if it prioritizes the program and gets its house in order. Just a few weeks before the Iraqi analogue to this program was scheduled to expire in September 2013, the State Department and its partner agencies throughout the federal government were able to process almost the entire backlog of Iraqi SIVs. The lessons learned during that surge of processing carried over into the Afghan SIV program: In the past eight months alone, the State Department has given visas to twice as many Afghans as it had in the prior five years. We need to see this kind of effort continue.
However, as of this writing, the Afghan SIV program is drastically insufficient — both in time and in scale — to address current and projected needs. About 2,500 SIVs are available for Afghans between now and September 30, 2015, and Afghans have to apply for these visas before September 30, 2014. However, an estimated 8,000 Afghans wait somewhere in the backlog — either those whose applications the State Department hasn’t looked at yet, or those who are still waiting for their background checks to go through. And this backlog is only likely to swell further as the American troop withdrawal proceeds. Moreover, the US government’s current plan is to keep American troops in Afghanistan through 2016, in which case the need for the SIV program will extend far past its current expiration date as the need for in-country support continues.
Most pressingly, the State Department officially estimates that the current supply of allocated visas will expire in July 2014. In short: We desperately need more visas and more time.
Congress has, over the past year, passed three extensions and expansions to Special Immigrant Visa programs for our wartime allies. The SIV may be one of the only true nonpartisan issues of the day. Yet public attention to this issue will wane as our war in Afghanistan recedes into memory. Without further legislation from Congress soon, the political moment to get this program right will pass too, and thousands of Afghan allies will be left to die.
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