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Why The Number Of U.S. Visas Being Granted To Afghan And Iraqi Allies Are Down


For 17 years, Afghan and Iraqi interpreters have served alongside U.S. soldiers at war. They face not just the danger of combat but death threats from the Taliban and ISIS. This is why the military has promised American visas for those interpreters and their families. But this week, the Reuters news agency reported that the Pentagon is alarmed because the number of visas granted to Iraqi allies has plunged. The program to get Afghan allies to the U.S. has also slowed to a trickle. Here's NPR's Quil Lawrence.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Two decades of war - about 3 million U.S. troops have served. So it shouldn't surprise you that there are 17,000 Afghan citizens on the waitlist for visas, Afghans who volunteered to help U.S. troops or diplomats.

FIDA: I am proud to have worked with such wonderful people. And they, you know, stand by me.

LAWRENCE: Fida - he asked we only use his first name for his security - started working with U.S. special forces in 2006, then USAID, then the Marines in 2010, the State Department in 2012. He helped arrange meetings between Afghans and U.S. diplomats. And the enemy took notice.

FIDA: As soon as I arranged a meeting for him, I had a call from the Taliban and saying, hey, you know, they would kill me for that.

LAWRENCE: Fida spoke to us by Skype from Afghanistan, where he has waited since 2011 for a visa for him and his family of eight to come to the U.S. He says the Taliban still send threats and interrogate his relatives about where he is. He won't speak ill of the U.S., but he says the American reputation is suffering.

FIDA: In the future, people will think - you know, say that, no, they broke the promises to a lot of interpreters who were shoulder to shoulder with them and who saved American lives.

LAWRENCE: Lives like Matt Zeller's.

MATT ZELLER: I shouldn't be sitting here talking to you today at all.

LAWRENCE: Zeller was an Army captain in 2008.

ZELLER: The only reason I am is because my Afghan translator saved my life in a battle 10 years ago when he killed two Taliban fighters who were about to kill me.

LAWRENCE: Zeller came home and founded No One Left Behind, a group that helps interpreters get resettled in the U.S. But Zeller says it's taking Afghans and Iraqis longer and longer to get a visa. And that gives the Taliban or ISIS more time to hunt them down.

ZELLER: They served, and they were ultimately through their service eligible for a visa. We're supposed to issue those visas and bring them to the United States. And the reality is we're not doing that.

LAWRENCE: State Department numbers show that in the first month of this fiscal year, 1,875 Afghans arrived on the Special Immigrant Visa program. Last month, only 177 arrived - over a 90 percent drop. For Iraqis, the numbers are worse. They have to apply under a refugee program, which has seen numbers drop from 3,000 arrivals last year to around 50 this year. There are about 100,000 Iraqis waiting for visas according to the International Refugee Assistance Project, which is helping the Afghan interpreter Fida with his case. His lawyer, Julie Kornfeld, says in past years Congress put money aside for their resettlement.

JULIE KORNFELD: This is the first time that the National Defense Authorization Act is not budgeting for these additional visas.

LAWRENCE: Kornfeld says it may be additional security checks by the administration are slowing things down, but explanations are hard to find. The White House deferred to the State Department for comment. The State Department acknowledged the problem and said, we are working closely with U.S. government partners to resolve these issues. Kornfeld says it's a matter of national security to maintain the trust of Afghan and Iraqi allies.

KORNFELD: We need to do everything we can to ensure that people like Fida are safe and can come to the U.S. as promised.

LAWRENCE: She says anti-immigrant sentiment is high right now. But these interpreters have been vetted, says Kornfield, many of them by gunfire, and shown that they are no threat to Americans. Quil Lawrence, NPR News.


Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.