One of the most often repeated phrases in our military culture is “Leave No Fallen Comrade Behind.” Many service members relied so heavily on their Afghan and Iraqi translators that some were considered members of the unit. It goes without saying that, when troops are in the combat zone, their lives are in constant danger. But at the end of their tours, they get to go home.
Translators, however, do not have that luxury.
The Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) is a U.S. program established for Afghan or Iraqi translators who have worked with the U.S. military. Translators play a crucial role for the U.S. military, and the Iraqi Refugee Assistance project estimates that around 50,000 Iraqi and Afghan nationals have served as translators over the past decade. However, working with the U.S. often comes with a heavy cost: being branded a “traitor” by the Taliban and other groups, putting the translators and their family members at constant risk. The SIV program was intended to provide protection against this by allowing the translators and their families to migrate to the U.S. after their service.
Unfortunately, the program has fallen short, as evidenced by a recent protest held by Afghan translators outside the U.S. embassy in Kabul, demanding that the U.S. follow through with its promised visas.
Obtaining a visa under the SIV program entails a lengthy, and costly, application process. There are three steps. First, the applicant must file a petition with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services in the Department of Homeland Security (USCIS). The applicant is required to provide basic information, a birth certificate, with certified English translation, proof of employment with the U.S, evidence of a background check, and a letter of recommendation.
If that is approved, the translator may move on to step 2, applying for the visa. This requires submitting many of the same documents, plus additional information for every family member. The entire process can – and often does – take years.
Taking years, unlike the complications experienced by others in the immigration process, can cost Afghan interpreters their lives.
By expediting the process, what are the chances of letting in some bad players?
One reason civil servants might be wary about issuing visas is that they do not want to be associated with allowing potential security risks into the U.S. However, many of the soldiers who served alongside the translators disagree with the notion of any potential security risk. Indeed, U.S. soldiers have campaigned for a more efficient visa approval process, including U.S. Army soldier Matt Zeller, who has revealed that during his time in Afghanistan the Taliban would attempt to have the translators dismissed by calling and making fraudulent claims to the U.S. military bases in Afghanistan.
Congress has just extended the SIV program for another two years, after it was set to expire on December 31, 2014. The extension is likely to assist thousands of Afghans. However, as American troops start to pull out, the translators and their families who are being left behind remain at serious risk of retribution from the Taliban.
As I asked here:
What do we still owe Iraq and Afghanistan, if we owe anything at all? Pottery barn rule? President Obama seems content to absolve U.S. hands of any further involvement and entanglements, having failed in renegotiating SoFA for the sake of national security and self-interest (which is tied to Iraqi’s security and interests); and we as a nation seem at peace with exiting both theaters, cutting our losses, weary of American blood and treasure spent or squandered (however you wish to look at it).
And what responsibility should we have toward individual lives and families, like Roy’s, who sided with the Americans? Why should we care? How do we honor those soldiers and military families who sacrificed the ultimate? Aren’t we selfish Americans, after all, who care only about nation-building at home? Who have no further responsibility nor obligation toward the mess and aftermath of Iraq and Afghanistan? They own it, now. They should fix it.
Isn’t it cynical to believe America still stands as a beacon of freedom to the world, in this day and age? The last best hope?
Did we prove to OBL that America isn’t a paper tiger?
Should we care whether or not Roy’s mom hates us? Blames us- as so many rightly and wrongly do- for the state Iraq is in, today? Should we concern ourselves on whether or not Roy’s siblings are able to have a good life? Should Blake Hall be the only person to shoulder the guilt, compassion, sense of moral responsibility to Mohammed/Roy? What is he to us, who did not personally know him?
In Sept 2013, USA Today reported Iowa troops fight to get Afghan interpreter to U.S.:
DES MOINES — Nabiullah Mohammadi knows exactly how lucky he is to have made it to Des Moines.
The young Afghan man risked his life for years to help waves of American soldiers navigate the complicated politics, customs and languages of his country. When interpreters were scarce, he went on multiple missions a day. He kept at it, even after village leaders threatened to denounce him to the Taliban. He even returned to work after a bomb blast seriously injured him.
“I have so much respect for Nabi,” said Pat Hendrickson, an Iowa Guard lieutenant who served with him in a rugged, volatile region near the Pakistan border. “I served one deployment in Afghanistan. He probably served six or seven, when you think about it.”
Hendrickson and other Iowa soldiers feared that the slight, friendly interpreter and his family would be killed. That’s why they helped him apply for permission to move to America. Then they helped shepherd his application through a balky State Department process, which critics say has left many deserving people in perilous limbo in Afghanistan and Iraq.
These interpreters were a huge help to us, and based on their willingness to help our country, their lives are in severe jeopardy based on Taliban members who became aware of their international aid. “If I can’t go to the States, my life is over,” said an interpreter named Muhammad. “I swear to God, one day the Taliban will catch me.”
A while back, Muhammad was asked to mediate between U.S. soldiers and locals after an American convoy ran over an Afghan child, which lead to the child’s death. This situation had the ability to escalate quickly, and he put his life on the line to take on the job. Since he believed that he was spotted by a Taliban member during his assignments, he noted it on his application for his visa. All applicants are required to establish that they have experienced, or are currently experiencing, an ongoing serious threat as a consequence of employment by or on behalf of the U.S. government – but according to the U.S., Muhammad’s experience didn’t qualify.
In order to try and help us, interpreters disguised their identities by adopting a fake name, and some even wore masks and used other forms of costume. Even by trying to live a phony life, the Taliban can often still identify those who joined forces with us – especially if the interpreter originated from a very small town.
Another interpreter who goes by the name of Naseri was also denied a visa, despite the fact that he survived three attacks by improvised bombs on the military units he accompanied. Also? His family was threatened by the Taliban, who tracked down his address and threatened to kill them. If that’s not the definition of “serious threat”, I’m not sure what is.
Afghan interpreter Ehsan Mashal had his house raided a few months ago, and narrowly escaped Taliban fighters by jumping over the wall to the home next door. The fighters threatened to cut off Mashal’s head as punishment for helping American soldiers.
One interpreter already lost his life based on his participation. A U.S. Marine interpreter named Mustafa was kidnapped and killed outside Kabul in August, several days after he completed his visa interview. Who knows how many more will lose their lives, or lose their family, before this gets straightened out. How does this failure to accommodate those who helped us reflect on our country on a global level?