Rule Change Dashes Hope for Afghan Military Allies Seeking Refuge in U.S.

Former interpreters for American forces living in fear—and losing hope

A U.S. soldier speaks to Afghans, aided by an interpreter / AP
February 16, 2016

Afghan translators who worked for the United States military could find themselves ineligible for U.S. visas due to a recent State Department decision that retroactively changed the requirements for applicants.

The rule change, which increased the minimum employment requirement for interpreters from one year of U.S. government service to two years of service, was passed by Congress in September 2015.

Advocates say the State Department has been applying this change retroactively to interpreters who submitted applications months or years before the rule was passed—a decision that could impact as many as 3,300 Afghan translators who are under threat from the Taliban.

"A legal game of semantics is going to potentially end up killing 3,300 veterans who have been left behind in Afghanistan," said Matt Zeller, a former U.S. Army officer who runs the interpreter advocacy group No One Left Behind. "These guys met the requirements of the visas when they first applied, and the only reason they’re not here is because the U.S. government can’t get their act together and approve these visas on time."

One Afghan translator who spoke with the Washington Free Beacon and who wished to be identified only as "Dave" applied for a visa on Nov. 7, 2014. Last month, he received a rejection letter from the U.S. embassy in Kabul citing "insufficient length of employment" and saying he did not meet the two-year requirement.

The rejection was based on information from Mission Essential Personnel, the U.S. contractor Dave worked for. According to MEP, Dave was employed as an interpreter for just 20 months.

But Dave says he worked with the U.S. military from 2003 until 2009, and again from 2010 to 2011. He provided the Free Beacon with multiple letters of recommendation and certificates from U.S. military officials that appeared to verify his claims.

"[Dave] has worked for a period of longer than four years with the United States Army to include his current assignment with Able Company," wrote 1st Lt. Kareem F. Hernandez in one May 22, 2008 letter of recommendation. "He always went above and beyond his duties to assimilate with the people, and help Coalition Forces understand and deal with locals."

Karl Beilby, a civilian contractor who worked with Dave when he was embedded in the Pech River Valley in 2010, said the interpreter was one of the few who would agree to work in the notoriously dangerous area.

"One day in the Pech River Valley is more dangerous than an entire year in Kabul," said Beilby. "I had interpreters come out that would just refuse to go outside the wire, refuse to go out on a mission, and I would just send them back and tell them to get me someone else."

Beilby said he began working with Dave after his previous interpreter left because of the risk.

"Almost every mission we got shot at. Almost every mission was a firefight, and Dave went with us," he said.

He recalled one ambush in which Dave, who had not been issued body armor or a gun at the time, helped Americans carry two wounded Afghan National Army members to a medical helicopter while under heavy fire.

"Dave was one of the guys running out into the open without any body armor, without a helmet, without a weapon, without anything," Beilby said. "And he was helping carry the stretchers."

Mission Essential Personnel did not respond to a request for comment about the discrepancies in its timeline for Dave’s employment. The State Department did not respond to a request for comment.

May Whitaker, a California-based attorney who has been working on Dave’s case, said she has found it difficult to get responses from the contracting company. She also said she is concerned about the interpreter’s safety.

"Dave would email me regularly pleading for an update on his visa application, afraid for the safety of his two young children," Whitaker said. "He would recount horrible stories of the verbal abuse and threats he receives from his own relatives who called him an ‘infidel’ and wanted him dead, or the fear of hearing a call on his local radio broadcast for people to kill those who worked with the Americans."

At 1:20 a.m. last Tuesday, Dave was still awake when a reporter reached him by phone at his home in Afghanistan. He said he has been having a hard time sleeping.

"I’m always awake in the night time. I can’t sleep," he said.  "Because all the people in my town … the people don’t like me. Everybody knows who I am."

Published under: Afghanistan