The U.S. Senate in a bipartisan vote recently warned that a “precipitous withdrawal” of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and Syria "could allow terrorists to regroup, [and] destabilize critical regions." Now that the Senate has found the courage to rebuke the White House on this urgent matter of national security, it should stand up for those who have served honorably with American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan — the local interpreters who make it possible for American forces to conduct counterinsurgency operations and collect intelligence.
At the end of 2017, more than 10,000 applications by former interpreters in Afghanistan and Iraq for Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) were pending (and more than double that number when immediate family members are counted). But the number of SIVs actually granted has slowed considerably. In FY 2019, just 2,554 persons with SIVs have arrived in the U.S., compared with 10,256 last year.
The delays in processing these visas puts our brave allies’ lives at risk. In 2013, Congress mandated that SIVs should take no more than nine months to process because applicants are at immediate risk of being attacked or killed. Yet applicants are facing delays of between 18 months and five years.
As one former Iraqi interpreter, represented by the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), attested in a pending lawsuit, “Every day that I have to wait for a decision on my SIV application is another day that my family and I are in danger of threats and retaliation based on my service to the United States. Knowing that my father was killed because of my work leaves me terrified that members of my family or I will meet the same fate. The uncertainty of not knowing whether my SIV application will be granted has had a very big impact on my life. I have been pursuing this opportunity since 2009 in order to start a new and safe life…”
“Ms. Doe-Bravo,” an Afghan woman in the same case, has worked for a U.S. government-funded development organization since 2013 and applied for an SIV in 2015. “After she and her family began receiving frequent death threats, she moved to a new, secret address with her husband and three young children. She has changed her phone number numerous times. She feels hopeless and cannot trust anyone, even as she recovers from recent childbirth and cares for her newborn.”
A once robust program has stalled. Nearly 73,000 SIVs have settled in the U.S. in the past 12-plus years (only two in Montana), but delays and red tape are putting applicants in harm’s way. This is a humanitarian and a moral issue, not a partisan issue. As a staff attorney for IRAP put it, “Keeping our invaluable partners in limbo for years erodes trust in us and destabilizes our relationships in the region. America needs to keep its promise to these brave allies.”
In his State of the Union message, President Trump said, "Legal immigrants enrich our nation and strengthen our society in countless ways." While he was speaking in the context of the southern border, his words apply to SIVs as well. We call on the president and Congress to do what is right and remove obstacles to SIV applicants.