WASHINGTON – As President Biden’s September deadline for ending the long war in Afghanistan draws nearer, a bipartisan coalition in Congress is stepping up efforts to ensure that Afghans who face retaliation for working with American troops and personnel there, join the United States can immigrate.
The group of Republicans and Democrats, many of them military or veterans who have worked with translators, drivers and fixers in Afghanistan and other combat zones, are trying to legislate to aid the “Afghan allies,” as they are often called before American forces return home, leaving these allies unprotected against Taliban revenge attacks. Legislators want to make it easier for Afghans to qualify for a special visa, expedite the process and get them out of Afghanistan as soon as possible while they wait to be allowed to live legally in the US.
More than 18,000 Afghans who worked as interpreters, drivers, engineers, security guards and embassy workers for the United States during the war are stuck in a bureaucratic swamp after applying for a special immigrant visa – available to people who work for the government the United States – some wait up to six or seven years for their applications to be processed.
The number of backward cases does not take into account family members, an additional 53,000 people, or the expected increase in applications when American troops withdraw.
“We’re frustrated here as lawmakers, especially those of us who have served and want to help the people who have helped us,” said Rep. Brad Wenstrup, Ohio Republican and Army Reserve colonel who served with Iraqi Translators worked as a combat surgeon in Iraq in 2005 and 2006.
Over the past few weeks, Mr Wenstrup said he had thought of the Iraqis he had served with – people who liked to sell art and pirated copies at the army base – including two killed in surprise attacks near Abu Ghraib and one third who finally got his visa and is now a US citizen and a successful cardiologist in Ohio.
“They will be your brothers and sisters,” he said.
Mr Wenstrup is part of the Working Group Honoring Our Promises – made up of 10 Democrats and six Republicans – which spearheaded legislation introduced Thursday that would expedite special immigrant visas from Afghanistan, increasing the available number from 11,000 to 19,000. The group is also lobbying the Biden government in an unlikely attempt to initiate a mass evacuation of Afghan applicants, possibly to Guam U.S. territory, while visas can be processed.
The bill would expand the universe of eligible Afghans by removing what its proponents call “onerous” application requirements, including a “credible affidavit” of a particular threat and evidence of a “sensitive and trustworthy” job. Instead, the measure would de facto provide that any Afghan who has helped the US government will, by definition, face retribution and should be able to apply for a visa.
“It became very clear to us that we had very little time left to help the people of Afghanistan,” said Jason Crow, a Democrat from Colorado, the law sponsor and a former Army Ranger who worked in and out of Iraq Served in Afghanistan. “I have very big concerns.”
While Mr Biden set September as the exit date, military officials have since indicated that the schedule has accelerated, with American forces and NATO allies planning to leave by mid-July.
Rep. Michael Waltz, Republican of Florida and former Green Beret who still serves as a colonel in the Army National Guard, said Mr Biden was short of time to look into the situation.
“If he doesn’t act and doesn’t get these people out, blood will stick to his hands and the hands of his administration,” said Waltz.
The non-profit organization Nobody is left behind has followed the murder of more than 300 translators or their family members since 2014, many of whom died while waiting for their visas to be processed, according to James Miervaldis, group chairman and sergeant of the Army Reserve.
A death database maintained by the group serves as a catalog of horrors: an interpreter was killed in a suicide attack in front of a bank; another was captured and tortured along the Kandahar-Kabul highway; another was killed in a night attack on his home.
In a poll by the organization, more than 90 percent of the 464 Afghan allies surveyed said they had received at least one death threat because of their work with Americans.
‘They are all generally scared,’ said Mr Miervaldis.
He found that the average time an Afghan applicant waited for a special immigrant visa to be processed was 3.5 years.
“We have people who wait six years, people who wait seven years,” he said. “There is literally no opposition in Congress and it’s frustrating how slow progress is coming.”
A mass evacuation would be a logistical challenge, similar to moving a small town. To date, the Biden government has resisted such calls and the prospect seems very unlikely. In a recent interview on CNN, Foreign Minister Antony Blinken called evacuation “the wrong word” and instead advocated improving the functioning of the visa program.
He said the Biden government recently hired 50 people to expedite the process.
“We are determined to fulfill our obligation to those who have helped us, who put their lives at risk,” said Blinken. “We have invested significant resources to ensure that the program can work quickly and effectively.”
But the pressure to do more is growing. Last week the New York Times published interviews with Afghan interpreters who said they feared for their lives while they waited for their applications to be processed.
“If the Taliban take power, they will find and kill me easily,” said a man, Waheedullah Rahmani, 27, who has been waiting for a visa decision since 2015. “Then my wife will not have a husband and my daughter will not have a father.”
The special immigrant visa has been plagued by chronic delays and congestion to varying degrees for more than a decade. Mr Crow said the problem was exacerbated by former President Donald J. Trump, who starved the program of resources and personnel, and then by the coronavirus pandemic, which suspended personal interviews and reviews.
A January report by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs cited “limited staffing” and “local security conditions directly related to the Covid-19 pandemic” as “serious” implications for the visa application process.
Mr. Crow and Mr. Wenstrup have taken a number of steps, including this week, to speed up the process. A separate bill they drafted would remove the requirement for Afghan special immigrant visa applicants to undergo medical examinations. There is only one clinic in the country that carries out the examinations – a German facility in Kabul – where some translators have to travel far under sometimes dangerous conditions. And the exams are pretty expensive, said Mr. Crow.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger, Republican from Illinois, and Earl Blumenauer, Democrat from Oregon, have taken another step to increase the number of visas available by 4,000. To date, around 15,000 visas have been approved since the program began, but only around 11,000 are still available – a number that, according to legislators, falls far short of what is needed.
“It was annoying: the dragging with the feet, the lack of coordination,” said Blumenauer. “It was incredibly frustrating. As a country, we have not met our responsibility. “
They found support in the other chamber from Senator Joni Ernst, Republican of Iowa and Lt. Col. Army National Guard, and Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire. The couple wrote to the Biden administration call for the program to be expanded to include 20,000 visas and a solution to the bureaucratic problems that caused the backlog.
“We are deeply concerned about the fate of these people after the withdrawal of US troops,” wrote the senators in a letter signed by 18 of their colleagues. “This would be an increase compared to previous years, but it is necessary to do everything we can to support the program as long as the US has the appropriate capacities in the country.”
Ms. Shaheen introduced laws last week that would expand and modify the Afghan special visa program for immigrants, postpone medical examinations, and extend visas for spouses and children of allies killed while waiting for their visas to be processed.
“Leaders from both parties have shown their support,” said Crow. “I expect we will get expedited handling of these bills.”
The bills have attracted dozens of co-sponsors, and legislators from both parties have given the visa program strong support in the past. In December, under a huge fallback bill, Congress raised the overall visa program ceiling by 4,000 to 26,500.
Several nonprofit groups and refugee lawyers are urging the Biden government to do more.
About 70 organizations recently wrote a letter to Mr. Biden urging his government to “immediately implement plans to evacuate vulnerable US-affiliated Afghans”.
Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service who organized the campaign, points out a precedent and points to the 1975 evacuation of 130,000 Vietnamese refugees by the Ford government via Guam to the United States; 1996 Airlift of 6,600 Iraqi Kurds from the country; and in 1999 the evacuation of 20,000 Kosovar Albanians to Fort Dix, N.J.
“We promised them that we would not turn our backs on them and leave them behind,” said Ms. Vignarajah.
Abdul Wahid Forozan, 34, was a translator for the American military in Afghanistan, came to America a year and a half ago through the Visa program, is now married, a father and works as a concierge in College Park.
In an interview, he described the decision to leave Afghanistan as difficult and painful, but said it was his only option given the death threats he faced.
“Everyone loves their homeland, nobody dislikes their country,” said Mr Forozan. “But if your life is in danger, if your family’s life is in danger, if you are threatened every day, I couldn’t live in Afghanistan.”
David Zucchino Reporting contributed.