Language interpreters have been indispensable to the efforts of American forces in Afghanistan. They provide troops with valuable intelligence and cultural orientation, and have even saved their lives. In exchange for their help, those whose lives are in danger because of the assistance they provided to the US military are eligible for special immigrant visas under a program established in 2009 — at least in theory.
Opaque State Department procedures and systemic management problems have left many interpreters without the visas they were promised after 12 months of service. Though there are an estimated 8,000 applicants waiting for these visas, only 3,000 were available this year.
Luckily, in an uncommon display of bipartisanship, Congress unanimously passed a measure to expand the special immigrant visa program last week, making an additional 1,000 visas available.
“This was as good of a deal as we were going to get,” Matt Zeller, a captain in the US Army Reserve and a co-founder of the interpreter-advocacy group No One Left Behind, told VICE News, referring to the partisan gridlock in Congress. “Do I think it was enough visas? No. Do I think it was the right start? Absolutely.”
The measure extending the program, which passed the House of Representatives last Wednesday and the Senate on Friday, was nearly derailed when Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions put a hold on the measure, Zeller said. The hold, which was lifted on Friday, would have delayed a vote on the measure until September, when the program was set to expire.
The congressional initiative was an emergency stopgap to keep the program going before a more extensive solution can be worked out.
“If we were going to do this properly, we would have said, ‘Okay, look. We know the program is running out at the end of September, we know that we need not just an additional thousand visas, but probably anywhere from six to 10,000 more visas over the course of the next couple of years,’ ” Zeller said.
Despite the short-term fix, advocates greeted the expansion with enthusiasm.
“We are absolutely thrilled that the measure went through,” Katherine Reisner, national policy director of Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, told VICE News. “It had to go through basically without objection in either chamber of Congress, and that’s an incredibly difficult feat in this political context. Any move on this issue would have been difficult to achieve.”
The number of visa applications has surged since the US began to withdraw from Afghanistan, highlighting the many issues plaguing the program. While it had originally allowed for 1,500 visas to be awarded annually, the State Department only issued 32 of them between 2009 and 2012.
The expansion passed by Congress follows a series of reforms undertaken by the State Department in recent months to improve the program. As Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged in a Juneop-edin theLos Angeles Times, “Delays in processing applications and lack of transparency in making decisions created problems. Bluntly stated, the process wasn’t keeping up with the demand. A full-scale State Department review revealed statistics and anecdotes that highlighted unconscionably long processing times for applicants, including on background checks conducted by other US agencies.”
The State Department has been revamping the program, and is now able to process about 500 visa applications a month. This is one of the reasons that a stopgap measure was so necessary.
“If there are no visas to be used, that infrastructure that took so much time and energy to put into place... the lights go out on the program, and you start to risk losing all that institutional momentum and resource allocation and institutional memory that took so much effort to build up,” Reisner said. “We’d be looking at a much higher start-up cost for getting the program going all over again.”
Proponents hope that an amendment allowing for a lengthier extension of the program will be included in one of the large bills Congress is expected to pass later this year, such as the National Defense Authorization Act or a defense appropriations bill. But getting the program extended again could be very difficult, even after the November midterms.
It’s unknown exactly how many Afghan interpreters have been killed or had family members targeted for helping US forces, but those who worked closely with American troops live in constant fear of Taliban retaliation.
“After a few years, I started receiving threats,” an Afghan interpreter named Srosh told VICE News correspondent Ben Anderson earlier this year. “My mom called me from our home province. ‘They’re looking for you,’ she said. ‘All your relatives are hearing it. The bad people are looking for you. Please run away.’ ”
Janis Shinwari, another interpreter, was forced to live apart from his family on a US military base while he waited for a visa. Though he eventually received one and made it to the US, his chance was nearly blown when the Taliban called in an anonymous tip to the US Embassy in Afghanistan that accused him of being one of their members.
Follow Jordan Larson on Twitter: @jalarsonist