Our Immigration System Is Killing Our Allies

Only a fraction of the promised visas have been delivered to foreign translators

The news media’s focus on illegal immigration prevents crucial dialogue on something more important: legal immigration. As a result, one of the many programs that receives little attention is the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program.

Launched in 2007, SIV provides visas to Iraqi and Afghan interpreters who face an “ongoing serious threat” in their own countries because of the “faithful and valuable service” they rendered to the U.S. government. It is a straightforward program with bipartisan support.

However, SIV is a bureaucratic mess; restrictions and backlogs have stranded former U.S. allies overseas, where they and their families are targeted for harm even though they were promised visas as part of their recruitment. While the program has significantly improved in the last year, reforms are still necessary to ensure the safety of these individuals and the integrity of promises made by the State Department.

The Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project estimates that 50,000 translators were used in the last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan. The State Department’s regular visa program for translators accepts only 50 applications per year, so it made sense to create a special program when the number of interpreters drastically increased during conflict.

Overall, 33,500 were promised. But as of September 2013, only 22 percent of the Iraqi visas and 12 percent of the Afghan visas had been issued, 7,000 in all. Astonishingly, only 37 Afghan interpreters were approved for visas in all of 2010 and 2011. The results have been remarkably deadly.

The List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies estimates that more than 1,000 interpreters were killed in Iraq alone. In 2014 the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project estimated that one Afghan is killed every 36 hours due to his American affiliation. Many of these deaths could have been prevented with a better visa policy.

An eye-opening report from Harvard’s Kennedy School details the story of Fahim Muhammad of Afghanistan, who became a U.S. military interpreter in 2006. When the Taliban found out he helped the U.S. government, they decapitated his uncle, cousin, and best friend. He applied for an SIV in 2007, 2009, 2010, and 2011 before his application finally achieved “pending” status. As of summer 2014 he was still in Afghanistan. SIV waiting times are truly a life-and-death issue. Up until 2014, average processing time was nearly four years.

Congress passed legislation in 2013 requiring applications to be completed within nine months. A year later, after little had changed, nine Iraqi interpreters filed a lawsuit against the departments of State and Homeland Security. The plaintiffs had waited, on average, over two years, and one had waited three years. Seven hundred visas were offered in 2013, nowhere near clearing the backlog.

Finally, with the program due to be dismantled in 2014, Congress approved a two-year extension for Afghan interpreters. The State Department requested 8,000 visas over a two-year period, but only 4,000 were available because of resource and personnel limitations. An estimated 13,000 people applied.

In a press release, Sen. John McCain argued, “We have a responsibility to honor the promises we made to the Afghan men and women who risked their lives and those of their families to assist American forces.”

The author of the Harvard report stated, “If the United States fails to rescue the thousands of interpreters in peril, the message will be clear: America does not honor its promises. Our country owes these men and women for the service they provided, and America has valid security and intelligence interests by ensuring they are protected in the United States.”

Reform is a straightforward matter. The application process should be quick and the paperwork relatively simple.

The State Department now claims that applicants can go through the whole process in under a year. As of January 2015, 11,000 individuals were somewhere in the application process. So the problem now is the number of slots. There are only 4,000 slots for 2015 and 2016; then the program runs out again. Matt Zaller, cofounder of the refugee advocacy group No One Left Behind, argues that 10,000 more visas will be needed over the next few years.

The unfortunate truth is that many of these applicants, despite their newly processed paperwork, have probably already been killed. Assisting the U.S. government in the face of increasing threat and danger overseas is a noble and brave task. Congress should quickly expand the number of visas to honor the promises made to these brave souls.

This post first appeared at the Niskanen Center.

Further Reading

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