Politics & Government

Afghan interpreters face new trouble trying to get U.S. visas

Afghan translator shares his experience

Noor Amiri was a translator with the United States Army and Special Forces in Afghanistan for six years. After the U.S. started withdrawing its forces, Amiri decided it wasn't safe for him to stay in his country and was granted a visa to come to t
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Noor Amiri was a translator with the United States Army and Special Forces in Afghanistan for six years. After the U.S. started withdrawing its forces, Amiri decided it wasn't safe for him to stay in his country and was granted a visa to come to t

Four years ago, Ahmad Shirin was in his native Afghanistan, fearing that the Taliban would kill him for serving as an interpreter for the U.S. Army, a job dutifully and dangerously carried out for 12 years.

Today, Shirin lives in Charlotte thanks to a special visa program for translators and interpreters who assisted U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.

That program is now in jeopardy.

Shirin said he fears that thousands who also aided American forces won’t be able to follow him to the U.S. because a special visa program for Afghans is in congressional limbo, partially entangled in the immigration debate raging in Washington.

“The people who supported the U.S. Army and U.S. government, their lives are in danger, serious danger,” said Shirin, who works part-time as an Uber driver in Charlotte. “These people made a lot of sacrifices to help the United States.”

The Afghan Special Immigrant Visa program, which allows Afghans who supported the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan and face threats because of their work to apply for refuge in the United States, needs to be renewed for Fiscal 2019, which begins October 1.

But the effort has become a victim of the broader debate over immigration.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, told McClatchy last week that he didn’t have a problem with the 4,000 special visas sought by Sens. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., but added “I just want some integrity provisions added” to the program.

When asked what those provisions might be, Grassley responded “you’ll have to define integrity.”

Tillis and Shaheen unsuccessfully tried to get an amendment for 4,000 special immigration visas, or SIVs, attached to a must-pass defense bill that the Senate passed Monday night, 85 to 10.

Tillis, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, still saw hope. He said lawmakers could add the visas and extend the program when Senate and House negotiators meet to write a final bill.

Failing that, “well look for other vehicles — we’ll find out whether or not the administration would have any leeway under any sort of other methods to allow people to immigrate here.”

“We send a very negative message to any people in country who are sympathetic with what we’re trying to do to help when we say ‘We want your help, but we won’t guarantee your safety,’” Tillis added. “These are folks who have done something extraordinary in support of our country in a very dangerous place.”

The Afghan program, part of the Afghan Allies Protection Act of 2009 and patterned after a visa program created for Iraqis allies a year earlier, has enjoyed Republican and Democratic support in both chambers of Congress.

The State Department offers Special Immigrant Visas to Afghans who risked their lives translating and providing other services to U.S. and allied forces during the war on terror. Sacramento's ethnic diversity and mild climate have made it a magnet

The program has also been called essential by top military officials, including Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and retired Gens. David Petraeus and Stanley A. McChrystal, both former commanders of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

But some key lawmakers who advocate for stricter U.S. immigration policies have sought to curtail the program in recent years, citing costs and security concerns.

Grassley questioned the cost of adding 4,000 visas when the Obama administration proposed it in 2016. A Congressional Budget Office report said it would cost $446 million over 10 years. Grassley’s former judiciary committee colleague, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, was also a fierce critic of the special visa program.

House Judiciary Committee Chair Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., has also baked at the program, telling The Washington Post in 2016 that “there must be reasonable limits on these programs.”

Goodlatte’s judiciary committee office did not return phone calls or emails seeking comment for this story.

Shaheen, speaking on the Senate floor last week, urged lawmakers not to allow “one or two people from keeping us from moving forward” in extending the visa program.

Over 50,000 Afghans have resettled in the U.S. between October 2006 and January 2018 through the special visa program, according to State Department figures.

A majority — 18,529 — have resettled in California followed by Texas with 7,503 and Virginia with 7,188.

Shirin is among the 582 Afghans who’ve resettled in North Carolina. He wishes that members of Congress would put themselves in the shoes of Afghans who assisted U.S. military, were promised safety in return, but now are unsure because of the visa program’s uncertain status.

“If they did that, I’m sure they’d increase the number of SIVs,” he said.

William Douglas: 202-383-6026, @williamgdouglas