Latest Defense Bill Could Decimate Visa Program for Afghan Allies

Proposed bill would narrow visa category for Afghans hunted by the Taliban

A U.S. Marine talks to an Afghan translator / AP

Afghan interpreters who worked with the FBI, the State Department, and other U.S. agencies in Afghanistan could be deemed ineligible for U.S. visas by the 2017 defense appropriation bill, according to advocacy groups.

Under the Special Immigrant Visa program, Afghans who worked as translators for the U.S. military and support operations are eligible to apply for American visas if their lives are at risk in Afghanistan.

But according to advocates for the SIV program, the latest version of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act in the House of Representatives would limit eligibility to translators who worked directly for the U.S. military or intelligence agencies. Interpreters in other support roles, such as working with the American embassy in Kabul or for base security, would no longer be qualified for the visa program.

As U.S. troops pull out of the region and the security situation deteriorates for American allies, thousands of Afghans currently under threat from the Taliban could be impacted.

"If this becomes the law of the land, in all intents and purposes there will not be an SIV program anymore," said Matt Zeller, a former Army captain who runs the interpreter advocacy group No One Left Behind. "And we will be outright turning our backs on a group of people we have made a fundamental promise to."

Zeller said the current version of the bill is "remarkably ambiguous" in defining which interpreters would be unqualified for the program. He called it a "wink and a nod to the State Department to start denying anybody who’s applying for a [special immigrant] visa."

"All the people who worked for the FBI, the DEA, our very own State Department, none of those people suddenly qualify," said Zeller, adding that the changes could also cause problems for Afghans who worked in covert capacities for U.S. intelligence agencies.

"As far as the Taliban are concerned, they worked for the U.S. military and they should all die," he said.

The bill also does not allocate additional visas despite a backlog of 10,000 applicants. Currently, 4,000 visas are still available from last year’s congressional allocation, but the State Department has requested another 4,000 so it can process new requests.

"Thousands of Afghans have given sacrificial service to our country in Afghanistan, and our country has made a promise to them," said Betsy Fisher, policy director at the International Refugee Assistance Project. "When we fail to provide them with safe passage as we’ve promised to do, we leave them in danger. But we also jeopardize our national security, in light of our ongoing military presence overseas."

The bill is being drafted by the House Armed Services Committee, but sources say the obstacle on visa allocation lies with the House Judiciary Committee, which has authority over immigration and visa issues.

Fisher said the failure to earmark additional visas means "those people in the backlog have no avenue for safety."

"There hasn’t been any explanation about what those extra 6,000 people should do," Fisher said. "It’s unclear whether this means they’re unwilling to grant further visas ever, or just reticent to do so right now. Certainly there’s a need for those visas immediately."

Zeller said the bill could have "profound consequences for our trust and goodwill" in the region.

"How could members of Congress put our current troops in this much danger?" he asked. "What happens if the current Afghans working as translators decide they can’t trust the U.S. to keep its promise, and just quit?"