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This past week, The Federalist featured a story reported by Fox News about an Afghan interpreter, Fraidoon Akhtari, who was finally granted a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) after a five-year wait. Akhtari accompanied US troops in 500 combat missions over 13 years.
In another story, an Afghani translator, Mohammed Janis Shinwari spent five years waiting for an SIV. It took US Army Captain Matt Zeller, who harassed the media, contacted Congressional members, and set up an online petition to rescue the man who had saved his life.
These stories are not news; the topic has been written about numerous times, but Iraqi and Afghani lives are still in danger because the wheels have been turning so slowly.
The State Department is one of the chief culprits. It sets the requirements for the approval process [boldface is theirs]:
You may apply for this program if you meet all of the following requirements:
- You must be a national of Iraq or Afghanistan; and
- You must have worked directly with the U.S. Armed Forces or under COM authority as a translator or interpreter for a period of at least 12 months; and
- You must have obtained a favorable written recommendation from a General or Flag Officer in the chain of command of the U.S. Armed Forces unit that was supported by you, as a translator or interpreter, or from the Chief of Mission from the embassy where you worked.
The requirements are strict, but not unfair.
Unfortunately this website provides conflicting information about the number of SIVs that are issued each year. It shows a chart that states that the processing time for a person who applies through Kabul is 287 days. Although a long period, it doesn’t seem unreasonable, in my opinion (given that we are talking about the US government.) Yet it’s also clear that data on approval rates does not match the reality. Many applicants are waiting years, not months, to be approved.
If you look more closely at the process, you’ll notice that Section 1059 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2006, which was amended in 2008 to allow 5,000 SIVs to be issued for the next five years, was amended in March 2017 to only 1,500. I would assume this latest figure is correct, but it’s hard to be sure. This change could affect as many as 10,000 applications. According to the NY Times, “It is unclear whether the reported suspension of new applications was related to the number of available visas or to the president’s order reducing refugee intake generally, or to a combination of the two factors.”
The State Department claims that delays can be a result of incomplete applications, applicants not meeting the requirements, or other applicant-related problems. If there are thousands of people who endangered their lives by helping our troops, why are so few even applying? Are they discouraged by the slow pace of approval (even though the system has been improved)? Do they receive any assistance in completing the documentation?
Fortunately one non-profit organization has stepped up to aid Iraqi and Afghanis in this process, once they are here, called No One Left Behind. This is their mission:
The mission of No One Left Behind is to help Afghan and Iraqi combat interpreters with Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) resettle safely in the United States. We bridge the gap that exists between current State Department and NGO refugee relief programs, and provide assistance with housing, employment and cultural adaptation. We treat our clients as the heroic veterans they are.
The organization estimates that there are more than 35,000 individuals who’ve aided American troops, and they and their families are in constant danger for the aid they provided.
Significant issues surface in the face of these endangered interpreters and translators who are left to struggle in their respective countries. Why does the number of SIVs approved keep changing, when thousands of Iraqis and Afghanis and their families are looking for asylum? Do we have an obligation to be more generous in the number of people we approve and the timeliness with which we do it? Since they not only put their lives at risk to assist our troops, doesn’t it matter that they are possibly in even greater danger remaining in their countries? Do you suspect other reasons for the State Department dragging its feet? And it’s not clear whether integrating them into this country is part of the government’s job, or if it should be left to organizations like No One Left Behind.
At the very least, we should be doing a better job of bringing these heroes to safety. They helped keep our troops alive.