Congressional inaction to authorize visas for the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program has recently resulted in America breaking its promise of safety to thousands of Afghan interpreters and aides who risked their lives to assist US troops and diplomates. Such short-sighted policy undermines both our moral and national security imperatives. It is morally reprehensible to abandon already vetted allies who are now at risk of persecution or death in their home countries. Furthermore, if this policy becomes emblematic of how the U.S. treats its allies, it will surely become more difficult to find people who will work with us in future conflicts, thereby putting our troops at greater risk. It is incumbent upon Americans to voice their support for the immediate authorization of more visas for the SIV program.
The at –risk and Afghans who will suffer from the loss of the SIV program are already vetted allies, who go through another extreme vetting process to gain resettlement. The SIV program was signed into law in 2009 under the Afghan Allies Protection Act and qualifies Afghan nationals for permanent residence in the United States if they served as interpreters or in other mission-critical roles for the U.S. for at least two years between 2001 and 2016. SIV applicants begin the process by seeking sponsorship from the U.S. embassy in Kabul and must obtain a letter of recommendation from a U.S. service member. The applicant undergoes rigorous background checks conducted by intelligence and law enforcement agencies, as well as multiple interviews at the embassy to corroborate the accuracy of their application and argue that they, and many times their families, face a serious threat to their lives because of their service to the United States.
Tragically, the requirement for SIV applicants to establish a serious and imminent threat of persecution due to his or her service to America often becomes a self-executing fact. As the U.S. military’s drawdown in Afghanistan continues, Afghan interpreters returning home from base are met not by peace, but retaliation by local Taliban fighters in the form of assassinations, kidnapping, maiming, and harassment. There are countless stories of former interpreters even being outed by their neighbors and forced to flee like fugitives in their own country. With the average waiting period from application to decision currently at 410 days (State Dept. 2017) and in many cases much longer, applicants are forced to live in constant fear with every passing day.
It is not only our moral duty as Americans to uphold our promise of helping those who protected our own in battle, but maintaining the SIV program is also vital to our national security interests. When the time comes again for American soldiers to deploy in a conflict abroad, they will be stripped of credibility in their attempts to recruit necessary native interpreters to help with understanding the land and gathering local intelligence. If America cannot demonstrate to the world that it will do the right thing by taking in those that risk their safety for our soldiers, the country will find itself alone in critical moments.
For those who question the loyalty and indispensableness that these native interpreters have demonstrated, one need look no further than the reports of countless U.S. veterans who fought alongside them. In a stunning piece, The New Yorker recently recounted 1st Lt. Matt Zeller’s harrowing story of being saved by an Afghani interpreter, Mr. Janis Shinwari, who voluntarily joined the rescue mission that extracted the lieutenant and his outgunned crew that was struck by a roadside IED in 2008. In the end, America kept good on its promise to grant Mr. Shinwari American citizenship, but not without years of delay throughout his SIV process, relentless advocacy by 1st. Lt. Zeller and narrow escapes from Taliban retaliation.
Congress has the opportunity and obligation to remedy this horrifying scenario. We urge you to call your local U.S. representative or senators office and demand that they join their colleagues Senators John McCain and Jeanne Shaheen, and Representative Adam Kinzinger, in co-sponsoring legislation that would authorize an emergency infusion of visas to the program.
For more information, please visit the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) at https://refugeerights.org.