An Afghan interpreter who helped save the life of a Purple Heart recipient had his U.S. visa abruptly revoked just days after receiving it, in what Afghan refugee advocates say exposes a major flaw in the visa system.
Janis Shinwari, an Afghan interpreter who fought alongside 1st Lt. Matt Zeller in a 2008 firefight in the Ghanzi Province, received a visa on Sept. 3 after a two-year application process and a high-profile advocacy campaign by Zeller.
The State Department said it could not comment on the specific case, but one official said national security concerns may have played a role.
"I can say that our visa procedures and processes are designed to address national security concerns at every stage of the visa application process," a State Department official said. "The Department has broad authority, under Section 221(i) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, to revoke visas based on information that comes to light at any time indicating that a visa holder may be inadmissible to the United States or otherwise ineligible for a visa."
The visa program for Afghan and Iraqi interpreters, who are often targeted by the Taliban because of their support for the U.S. military, has been criticized as inefficient. The Washington Free Beacon reported in August on the stalled visa application for an interpreter who helped rescue U.S. soldiers alongside Medal of Honor recipient Dakota Meyer during the Battle of Ganjgal.
Zeller said he believes the Taliban had actively tried to derail Shinwari’s application.
"This was some anonymous tip designed to prompt exactly this type of response," Matt Zeller said. "And the tragic thing is that he’s not the only person that this has happened to. This happens all the time."
Katie Reisner, the national policy director of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, said she has seen other cases of visas being revoked based on last-minute calls.
"It’s this very, very bizarre set of circumstances because [the applicants] cleared these incredibly rigorous security clearance processes," Reisner said. "And then somehow, at the last minute, the State Department gets some sort of punitive evidence that they give credence to above and beyond all the lengthy, lengthy processing that the applicant has gone through and passed."
"This is definitely not the first we’ve seen. And unfortunately it seems like for many people there’s no way to iron this out."
Reisner said one refugee she worked with was asked to reapply after his visa was revoked and he is currently in the middle of that process.
"In the other cases, it was the end of the road," she said. "There were not a lot of options for them."
Kirk Johnson, founder of the List Project, said there is a very low threshold when it comes to derailing a visa application for Afghan or Iraqi interpreters.
"The slightest little thing can doom your chances," he said. "For the most part these Afghans and Iraqis have no clue what went wrong with their case."
Johnson said the problem lies primarily with the White House, because executive branch officials currently have little incentive to grant these visas and have not received public directives from President Barack Obama.
"This has always been a matter of the White House," he said. "Obama has just been shamefully silent on this, on both Iraq and Afghanistan."