New York Times

Breaking a Promise to Afghan Translators

AUG. 18, 2016

Julianna Brion
The nation’s rancorous debate over immigration policy has greatly diminished the chances of citizenship for a small group of people who have done a great service to the United States and are as deserving as anyone to make it their new home. They are the Afghan interpreters who, at considerable risk to their lives and families, worked for the American government during the war and who remain in mortal danger.

In recent years, a few thousand of these interpreters have enjoyed access under the Special Immigrant Visa program for Afghan linguists. That program is now under scrutiny by lawmakers with hard-line views on immigration who have questioned its necessity, raised alarm over its costs and threatened to end it. Doing so would be reckless and morally reprehensible. While the future of American immigration policy will continue to be a fraught political issue, the fate of this tiny segment of aspiring Americans should not.

As things stand, there are roughly 12,600 applicants with pending petitions and only about 2,500 visas the State Department is authorized to issue. That means that about 10,100 Afghans, who had every reason to believe their service to the United States would be rewarded with a safe haven, may be left behind.

The State Department and other government agencies involved in vetting applications administered the program poorly for years after it was established in 2009. Many applicants waited for several years to learn whether their cases were approved. Other applicants were rejected without being told why. Over the past couple of years, responding to an outcry from veterans and members of Congress, officials have begun to process cases more quickly. But the department expects to run out of visas to issue early next year.

While the resettlement initiative was long politically uncontroversial, a handful of Republican lawmakers — including Senators Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Jeff Sessions of Alabama — appeared intent on shutting it down this year. Their opposition coincides with a political season in which some Republicans, most prominently Donald Trump, the party’s presidential nominee, have branded Muslim immigrants as inherently dangerous.

Gen. John Nicholson, the top American general in Afghanistan, where thousands of United States troops continue to serve, warned earlier this year in a letter to Senator John McCain that scrapping the program while endangered interpreters wait for their cases to be completed “could have grave consequences for these individuals and bolster the propaganda of our enemies.”

Mr. McCain, who heads the Senate Armed Services Committee and has been among the top champions of the program, failed to get enough support to extend it when the Senate worked on its version of the defense bill. Meanwhile, the House version would restrict the eligibility criteria for the program and authorize no new visas.

Mr. McCain and Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, another key backer of the program, hope to keep it alive through one or another last-minute maneuver. When the House and Senate versions of the defense bill are reconciled, they hope to muster enough support to add a few thousand visa slots in the final draft. Alternatively, the program could be extended in an appropriations bill that Congress may put together later this year.

Failing to keep our promise to Afghans who risked life and limb in the battlefield would add a shameful chapter to the mixed legacy of America’s longest war.