Editorial: From Shaheen, an urgent plan to help Afghan allies
In Afghanistan, the residents who work as interpreters for the U.S. military fear for their lives. Today, last year and, most of all, tomorrow.
The Taliban have targeted translators for cooperating with the Americans. And when the U.S. pulls out of Afghanistan, the possibility of real slaughter begins. President Obama has pledged to end America’s military involvement in Afghanistan by the end of 2014; this week, officials signaled the possibility of an even faster pullout.
The situation would be tragic enough if the United States hadn’t promised years ago to provide translators with a path toward safety: a special visa that would allow them to relocate here. But that promise has gone largely unfulfilled, and the program itself is set to end in a matter of months.
This is just one more urgent reason that Congress must pass the immigration bill that made it through the Senate last month. Hidden amid the provisions for Mexican border security and paths toward citizenship is a measure backed by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and John McCain that would expand and simplify the “special immigrant visa” program for Afghans who have risked their lives to help our military.
Here’s what’s at stake:
In 2009, Congress passed a law to reward those Afghans who worked for U.S. forces, allowing them to apply for a visa to the United States. There are now 8,500 visas available, a small number considering that 8,000 Afghans have served as translators and most have spouses, parents and children also threatened by the Taliban. Yet even that number would be a good start. In fact, the United States had issued just over 1,000 such visas as of last year.
What’s the holdup? The problems are myriad.
First, interpreters hired by the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force instead of directly by the United States were ruled ineligible. This is nonsense that must be fixed. NATO is led by the U.S. and, regardless, the Taliban is unlikely to draw such distinctions among its potential victims.
Second, the paperwork is daunting for applicants.
Third, the U.S. government is understandably worried about terrorist sympathizers landing on our shores – and thus the application acceptance process is slow. This, despite the fact that many such applications from interpreters come with recommendations from U.S. military leaders.
Fourth, some U.S. officials are skeptical about the program. Shuttling talented interpreters out of Afghanistan will make it more difficult for U.S. troops on the ground, according to a 2010 memo from the U.S. ambassador at the time.
A similar situation exists with Iraqi interpreters and the same promise made to them by the United States. In Baghdad, some translators report waiting months and even up to two years for an initial visa interview.
The measure backed by Shaheen and McCain would extend the special visa program for Afghans through 2018. It would increase the annual allotment of visas to 5,000. And it would make eligible those translators hired by NATO rather than directly by the United States.
In other words, Shaheen and McCain want the United States to keep its word to its allies, an important signal not just to Afghans but to the entire world. They would likely save hundreds of lives in the process.