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September 2, 2015

The Stories Behind the Numbers on Afghan Translator Visas

Just before Congress left for recess last week, it did something rare: It worked across the aisle to quickly clear legislation that filled what the Obama administration had declared an urgent need: authorization of 1,000 additional special visas to bring over Afghan citizens who helped the United States during the war there.

But the number of so-called Special Immigrant Visas only tell part of the story. The way they are processed has also raised questions.

Three years after the United States went to war in Afghanistan, an 18-year-old Afghan man who goes by the nickname “Outback” decided to become an interpreter for the U.S. Armed Forces. He had some insight into that world since his brother, Humayoun, 31, had started working as a translator in 2003. But neither of them expected to leave Afghanistan because of their jobs.

After receiving death threats for working with the U.S. military, Humayoun applied for a Special Immigrant Visa in 2006. He had to leave Kabul for his safety and changed his cell phone number numerous times. Gunmen shot dead his friend’s father inside his home. Humayoun eventually received his visa. Now Outback is trying to come to the United States, too — unsuccessfully so far.

The tale of these two siblings signifies one of the lesser-discussed casualties of a decade of war: how vulnerable are Afghan citizens who helped the United States , and how hard it has been for many of them to get protective assistance from the U.S. government.

Humayoun responded to death threats by plotting an escape for himself and his loved ones. “I did not want my family members to get killed because of my employment,” Humayoun, a father of four children, said while sitting at his home in Woodbridge, Va.

Humayoun received his Special Immigrant Visa in 2009. He found a sponsor who was able to support him and get him on his feet when he came with his family to the United States .

Humayoun’s brother has not received his visa. Outback — a name CQ Roll Call agreed to use to protect his identity — waited 25 months until his U.S. Embassy approval for a visa was revoked this March. That came after his contracting company, Mission Essential, sent a letter to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul that stated: “Employment with Mission Essential was terminated effective 30-Mar-2014 due to job abandonment.” On July 26, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul sent a letter to Outback stating he “did not provide faithful and valuable service to the United States Government.”

At the time, Outback was assigned in Poland to the NATO Training Mission for Afghanistan’s unit in charge of training Afghan doctors in Europe. Then he received a phone call from his family in Afghanistan alerting him that gunmen were looking for him by name.

Outback was supposed to return with his unit to Afghanistan. He consulted Lloyd Warren, a senior adviser at the the time to the Afghan Ministry of Defense, and decided to stay in Poland until the issue got resolved.

In a phone conversation with CQ Roll Call, Warren said these situations were familiar to him. “There have been translators who have been killed or beheaded because they were found out to be working with the American government,” he said.

Outback’s fight for safety hasn’t made much progress since Mission Essential fired him. Calls and emails to the company have not been returned.

In response to question’s about Outback’s particular case, a State Department official said all specific cases are confidential, adding, that the behind visa approvals “varies greatly. It is very case-specific.”

According to the official, who requested anonymity, “By August, we expect to have issued 3,000 [Special Immigrant Visas] this fiscal year to Afghans who were employed by or on behalf of the U.S. government (more than 7,000 including family members). More than 11,000 Afghans who were employed by or on behalf of the United States in Afghanistan (and their family members) have benefited from SIV programs.”

In an op-ed published last month, the deputy secretary of State for management and resources, Heather A. Higginbottom, wrote, “Unfortunately, there are still 6,000 Afghans in various stages of the visa process, including nearly 300 who have completed every part of the process and await only the last, most important step: receiving the visa in their passports.”

Currently, the average processing time for a special visa is approximately eight months, according to the State Department.

Warren said he has been sending letters and submitted a report justifying Outback’s reasoning for staying behind. “I explained to them over and over,” Warren said. “I don’t even know why [the company] submitted [that] letter.”

Retired Sgt. 1st Class James Stewart served in Afghanistan in 2006-07 and met Humayoun, who was his interpreter, and  Outback. He was a sponsor on the visa application for both the brothers. He has contacted his senator’s office in Utah to further vouch for Outback.

“To me, it was frustrating with Humayoun because it took so long,” Stewart said. “With [Outback] it has been similar, only even worse,” he said.

In a Skype conversation, Outback argued that he deserves the visa. “I never abandoned my job,” he said. “I never let my units down in the combat zone.”

During his time working as a translator for the U.S. Armed Forces, Outback said he was wounded twice and earned the respect of his counterparts.

Warren said he feels uncertain whether the visa process will ever help Outback. “I want to be hopeful for [Outback] because I know he deserves it. I was very surprised they canceled his visa process. He has been waiting for over two years and there were translators who had waited only six months and received visas,” he said. “My other four translators all applied and got it.”

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