A month ago, Taliban fighters raided the home of Afghan interpreter Ehsan Mashal during the dead of night. As his father stalled the militants who stood outside the family’s front door, Mashal escaped by jumping over the wall to the home next door. As the militants left, they threatened to cut off Mashal’s head as punishment for helping American soldiers.
For seven years, Mashal worked as an interpreter, and though he says he is “honored” to have helped the U.S., now that the troops are leaving, the target drawn on his back by local Taliban forces is growing. “My life is in risk and I’m struggling at the moment,” he wrote in an email Friday. Mashal filed applications to seek refuge in the United States, waiting months for a visa that may never come.
Civilians who risked their lives in U.S. causes abroad are now entangled in the budget fight on Capitol Hill. Like Mashal, Iraqis who have worked for the U.S. during the war languish in the visa process, and their situation may soon turn dire: The visa program designed to help Iraqis escape death for helping the military could shut down in just a few weeks.
This Special Immigrant Visa program was created to make it easier for individuals who risked their lives in the service of American interests in Iraq and Afghanistan to escape those threats and start lives in the United States. The United States has already cleared thousands of interpreters who have applied for visas, but the programs are far from perfect: Applicants face language barriers and local bureaucracy as well as often years-long waits before receiving visas. A letter signed by 19 members of Congress in March stated that only 22% of the 25,000 available visas have been issued to Iraqis; that number falls to 12% of the 8,750 available through the Afghan program.
Meanwhile, violence in Iraq has skyrocketed in recent months, reaching its highest levels in five years. And as troops leave Afghanistan, security threats to natives who worked with American forces are harder to avoid. Amidst the growing danger, veterans and refugee aid groups worry America won’t makes good on its promise to protect those who helped U.S. troops.
“Clearly the fact that we’ve only handed out small percentages of these allocated visas, that we’re not trying to get as many people who are eligible, our word is not good,” said former Army Intelligence Officer Matt Zeller, who is leading a cause to extend the visa programs.
The slow processing of Iraqi applications could come to a complete stop once the program expires at the end of this fiscal year on Sept. 30. Congress has just five voting days left to agree on a plan and avert a government shutdown, and prospects for a deal remain muddy. Current continuing resolution budget proposals that would keep the government running do not include an extension to the Special Immigrant Visa program. If it is not added to the final House deal, its chances of survival are left to Senate leaders to add it and hope it survives conference committee negotiations. The visa program for Afghan interpreters expires in September 2014, but advocates are trying to extend and reform it with the Iraqi program.
If the extension passes, there’s reason to be hopeful. Both the Senate and House versions of the defense authorization bill would extend the visa programs for both countries, add visas available to interpreters who worked in Afghanistan, and institute structural reforms meant to increase transparency and oversight within the programs.
However, advocates worry that even if the program is reinstated at a later date, parts of the process would have to be redone completely, and U.S. government offices would have to duplicate countless man hours to the process.
“It’s potentially a real nightmare,” Katherine Reisner of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, a group that has helped both Iraqi and Afghan citizens navigate the visa process, told MSNBC. Reisner’s group estimates that between two and three thousand Iraqis are in the midst of the application process right now. “There’s no way to get through that backlog” by the end of the month, she said. A State Department official said that it does not provide numbers on applications received for any visa categories.
Many U.S. soldiers and veterans have become involved with the process through their own translators. It has also led some of them, like 31-year-old Zeller, to take up the cause of extending the program. Zeller started an online petition and contacted members of Congress to secure a visa for Janis Shinwari, one of his translators in Afghanistan. Shinwari was granted his visa this week after two years of waiting and numerous threats against him by the Taliban.
Shinwari knows he is lucky. Another Afghan translator, Raz Mohammad Pirzoy, wrote in an email that he has been waiting more than 14 months for his visa to be approved, and that if his wait extends beyond when the base his is living on closes, he will almost certainly be killed. In addition to a failed attempt by armed men to kidnap his son, Pirzoy’s cousin, another interpreter, eventually received his visa, but it came after his wife and two young daughters were murdered.
The interpreters who are waiting now would welcome anything that would make things move faster. “I know some of my friends are waiting for more than three years to get their visa,” Janis Shinwari told MSNBC in an email. “Three years is a long time to live in the fear. Most of interpreters live in the interpreters village they cannot meet their families they spend most of their life in military bases interpreters village if they leave the base then they will get killed by Taliban.”
While Zeller is happy to know that Janis will soon be in the U.S., the possibility that the United States could end up breaking a promise to men and women who risked their lives in the service of another country could endanger future military efforts.
“This is absolutely an issue of credibility. It’s a moral issue,” Zeller said. “We made a promise to these men and women.”