Afghan translators fear being left behind amid US visa delay

Afghan interpreters who helped American soldiers now fear being left behind as US visa applications stall
7 min read
Washington, D.C.
06 June, 2021
Despite promises of securing their safety after they served the US government, Afghan interpreters face tough obstacles in getting visas to the US. Human rights groups, veterans and politicians are speaking up. Will that be enough?
The linguistic and cultural expertise of local Afghan interpreters have helped keep American forces safe [Getty]

Walid Omid Habibi has been in Rochester, New York for a month, but his thoughts are in Afghanistan, where his wife, three children and mother are waiting to leave.

"Physically I'm here in Rochester, but my mind is in Afghanistan thinking about them," he told The New Arab.

"They're under threat. I want to send a message to the people working in the field to make the procedure shorter," said Habibi, one of tens of thousands of Afghans who qualify for immigration to the US from Afghanistan through the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program.

In April, President Joe Biden announced that the US would completely withdraw its military from Afghanistan by September 11 after nearly 20 years of occupation (though recent reports have indicated that it could be as soon as mid-July).

The US invaded Afghanistan in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington. The US now becomes part of a legacy of empires that have failed to bring order and security to the country. An important part of this mission has been the local interpreters, whose linguistic and cultural expertise have helped keep American forces safe. Now, many of these same soldiers and other advocates are doing everything they can to ensure that these Afghans are not left behind.

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Providing a vital service at their own peril

Since 2002, tens of thousands of locals have worked as translators for the US military. In a country with one of the highest poverty rates in the world (47.3% of the population lives below the national poverty line, according to the Asian Development Bank), such jobs – though risky – have been coveted. It is estimated that an Afghan is killed every 36 hours to due to their affiliation with the US military in Afghanistan.

These interpreters and translators have done everything from routine office work to working at forward operating bases, special operations and in some instances hostage negotiations. They have been the eyes and ears of US service members.

"It would be no different than going in blind," Robert Cruz, association management executive for the National Association of Judicial Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT), a professional organisation that is advocating for Afghan interpreters, told TNA.  

"These individuals should be fast-tracked to a safer place. This is how fellow interpreters in this country feel about people they haven’t met being left behind. Interpreting professionals tend to be on a lower rung."

Advocates argue that ensuring the safe withdrawal of Afghan interpreters, as well as other locals who could face reprisals due to their work with the US government, should be a top priority for the US.

Whether it's expediting the application process or evacuating them initially through Guam while their paperwork is being processed, they say that leaving them behind after the US withdraws cannot be seen as an option, particularly given their vital work and the fact that the US has had nearly 20 years to plan for this moment.

"These SIV programs do not function in a way that allows for moving large numbers of people quickly. If the security situation in Afghanistan deteriorates or the US closes the embassy, if they apply now, it will take two years. That’s not quick enough for at-risk Afghans," Adam Bates, policy counsel for the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), told TNA.

"Hundreds of SIV applicants have been killed while waiting for their applications to be processed," he said. "This is pre-withdrawal. Stories like these will multiply."

The Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) was established in 2009 to help interpreters in danger relocate to the US (a limited visa program was started in 2006, but the program most nationals now use started in 2009). It is supposed to take nine months to process, but in practice it often takes years - Habibi and his father started their applications in 2007 and arrived in the US this year, during which time they considered trying to relocate to other countries, such as Tajikistan, Turkey or Germany.

To qualify for the SIV, applicants must prove that they are in danger - which now only requires a sworn statement by the petitioner, as it is common for the Taliban to not give written warnings - and that they have been employed as an interpreter for two years, which often comes up as one of the more difficult sticking points, as contractors can go out of business, companies –  or even applicants – might not want to carry proof of affiliation with the US military, and some cases interpreters who worked undercover or special forces wouldn’t even know how to locate their former supervisor.

Stories abound of applicants being denied visas for being days short of the two-year mark. In many other cases, Afghans have faced threats due to their jobs in which they did not work directly with the US military, such as working for an international humanitarian organisation. IRAP is advocating for an expansion of the criteria to protect those in danger of Taliban reprisals.

The bureaucracy is baffling, particularly given that that the SIV program has bipartisan support in the US government. Moreover, interpreters and their advocates point out that anyone who has been cleared for work on a US military base has already gone through a vetting process.

The most recent example of bipartisan support is a letter dated June 4, led by Representative Seth Moulton, a Democrat from Massachusetts, signed by around 20 members of Congress, saying that they are increasingly concerned that the Pentagon has not yet been mobilised to help protect America's allies, saying the current pace is too slow to meet the needs of the thousands of Afghans who are applying for visas.

In their letter, published by Politico, they wrote: "If we fail to protect our allies in Afghanistan, it will have a lasting impact on our future partnerships and global reputation, which will then be a great detriment to our troops and the future of our national security. Veterans in Congress understand this firsthand: when we recruited our Afghan friends, we promised to have their backs."

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Lack of sufficient support

Despite what appears to be bipartisan support, America remains a country divided over immigration. After four years of anti-immigrant policies, and almost a complete halt to the flow of immigration to the US, shortages in funding and staffing of these programs continue.

This apparent lack of priority of Afghans on the part of the US government has not been lost on visa applicants in Afghanistan.

Julie Kornfeld, an attorney with IRAP, said that one of her clients, whose family was recently targeted with a grenade by the Taliban, watched Biden’s speech following his announcement of the US troop withdrawal in April.

"They were on the edge of their seats waiting for Biden to mention support for Afghan nationals, but by the end of the speech he hadn’t mentioned them. He and his wife were devastated," she told TNA.

"The government needs to seriously consider evacuation plans for Afghans outside the immigrant visa model. They need to increase the staffing at the embassy. It’s not anywhere near the rate needed for the decreased US military presence. There are 70,000 translators and their family members who are waiting to get out of the country. That would be four flights a day by September 10, or 10 flights a day by July 4," she said.

"Their glimmer of hope is with the visa. We dangle this false hope in front of them," said Kornfeld. "Many of them won’t be able to get this visa."

Back in Rochester, Ellen Smith, executive director of Keeping Our Promise, an organisation that helps resettle interpreters in Upstate New York, sometimes worries about the hostility of some Americans toward immigrants.

In one instance, she recalls a man calling in to a local radio station asking what migrants from Afghanistan contribute. In her experience, they are already contributing a lot (aside from America’s legal and moral obligation to resettle them after their assistance to US troops abroad).

"We've all fallen in love with these families. We've gotten to know new cultures. We've gotten to know Islam, and we've found many commonalities that we didn't know existed. We've shared each other's food. Families have created a community here and they've enriched our community – something no one foresaw seven years ago," Smith, who has been working to help resettle refugees in Rochester since 2014, told TNA.

"I'm making calls and sending emails. It's a national disgrace."