Thousands more Afghans who have worked side-by-side U.S. troops as interpreters could get visas to the United States under a proposed law that is gaining support on Capitol Hill.
The bill would extend and expand a State Department program that grants U.S. visas to Afghan civilians who risked their lives in support of the U.S. combat mission there for the past 13 years.
“It’s not only a moral imperative, it’s a matter of national security,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who is sponsoring the bill, said at a news conference Thursday.
The Special Immigrant Visa program is set to expire at the end of this year, but the legislation would extend that deadline through 2015 and raise the cap on visas from 7,500 to more than 10,000.
The extension would help Afghans like Mohamad, a 25-year-old interpreter who worked alongside U.S. Marines for several years as an interpreter.
“He is the kind of guy who would take a bullet for me,” Marine Capt. Adrian Kinsella said at the news conference when lawmakers rolled out the bill and its bipartisan support. Kinsella was not speaking on behalf of the Marine Corps, but rather in his capacity as a private citizen and Mohamad’s visa sponsor.
Mohamad, who asked that his last name not be published, said Taliban insurgents terrorized his family in retaliation for his work with U.S. troops. They killed his father, kidnapped his brother and threatened his own life.
Yet it took years for the State Department to recognize his service and grant him a visa under the program that launched in 2009.
Kinsella said that when Mohamad contacted him in 2010 and asked for help with his visa application, Kinsella thought it would be a “slam dunk.” Instead, it took more than three years, and Mohamad did not arrive in the U.S. until January of this year.
Concerns about interpreters left behind have intensified recently as the drawdown of U.S. troops has forced the closure of many military bases where the interpreters have lived.
“Our bases are sanctuaries for these people and as our bases are closing, they are losing their sanctuaries,” said Army veteran Matt Zeller, who also spoke at the news conference Thursday.
Today Mohamad lives in Berkeley, Calif., where Kinsella helped him find an apartment and a job with a local video production company.
Similar programs granting special immigration status for interpreters began in 2007 with a similar law aimed at helping Iraqis. But the process was slow, and for years, few actual visas were granted. Critics say that was due to fears that valuable Afghans and Iraqis would quit their jobs helping deployed troops and immediately seek to move to the U.S.
“[The program] was more apparent than real. Things were getting slow-walked through the bureaucracy. … But now we are seeing daylight. We’re seeing things moving forward,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., who is sponsoring a similar bill in the House.
“The fact is, they were there when we needed them, providing critical assistance in terms of being guides and translators, people who time and time again proved that they were trustworthy,” Blumenauer said.
“It’s not just keeping our commitment to people who put their lives on the line for us, but it’s also in America’s vital national interests. Every day around the world, in military and diplomatic and development situations, we have foreign nationals who are part of our team and they need to know that they can rely on us if the situation demands.”
While most U.S. troops will be coming home from Afghanistan at the end of this year, advocates say thousands of Afghans also are trying to leave, but remain unsure whether they will be get a visa.
“We have plenty of friends who are still waiting in Afghanistan for their visas,” said Janis Shinwari, an Afghan who spent eight years as an interpreter and now lives in Virginia. “I don’t want our friends to pay the ultimate price [and] get killed by the Taliban.”