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US Lawmakers Vow to Continue Immigrant Program for Afghan Interpreters

FILE - U.S. Marine 1st Lt. Zachary Bennett talks with an Afghan interpreter during a joint patrol in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan, Sept. 19, 2009.

U.S. lawmakers say they want to make sure a program that enables Afghan military interpreters to immigrate to the U.S. continues without interruption, despite the Senate's failure to extend the program earlier this month. The interpreters are often targeted by the Taliban.

Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire, says she is considering introducing legislation to extend the program that she and many other members of Congress see as a lifesaver for Afghan military interpreters. She is looking to introduce legislation "sometime in the next month" in the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs.

"I'm pleased to say there is a lot of support in that subcommittee to extend the program, so hopefully, we can get that done, and hopefully, that bill will move forward," Shaheen said in an interview with VOA.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who is a member of the subcommittee, remains supportive of the program.

"The Leader feels that we owe a debt to the translators supporting our forces in Afghanistan," his spokesman Robert Steurer said in an email to VOA.

The Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program was created in 2008. Its goal was to allow military interpreters whose lives were in danger because of their work for U.S. forces in Afghanistan to come to the U.S. The program has since expanded to offer visas to any Afghan who can demonstrate "at least one year of faithful and valuable service" to or on behalf of the U.S. government.

More than 20,000 Afghan interpreters and their family members have immigrated to the U.S. under the program, most of them in the past two years.

Congress has amended the act every year to ensure enough visas are available; in the past two years, it has authorized 7,000 new visas. However, this year the Senate spending bill dropped the amendment because of procedural disagreements among members, while the House version effectively gutted the program by not authorizing new visas and imposing strict criteria for qualifying.

Shaheen said she was "very disappointed" by the Senate's failure to pass an amendment for 2,500 new visas that she co-sponsored with Senator John McCain, but added that she remained optimistic Congress would extend the program before it runs out of visas.

New urgency for extension

Of the 7,000 visas Congress has allocated over the past two years, the State Department has issued 3,487 as of May 8, leaving more than 3,500 available to some 10,000 other applicants waiting in line. The 7,000 visas are for "principal" applicants who are then allowed to bring their immediate family members with them, so in practice many more visas are issued.

The program may not be at risk of running out of visas in the coming months but extending it has taken on added urgency as Afghanistan's deteriorating security, combined with a faltering economy, drive thousands of young Afghans — including many former interpreters — to flee the country.

According to U.N. figures, last year, nearly 200,000 Afghans migrated to Europe alone. Although well below last year's peak, the flow of migration out of Afghanistan has continued. From January to April of this year, 35,000 Afghans applied for asylum in European countries, according to Afghanistan's Ministry of Refugees.

For many Afghan interpreters, the SIV program offers one of a few escape routes out of the country and the only alternative to hazarding a journey to Europe where anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise, said Mohammad Kazim Noori, who manages the Afghan SIV Applicant Association in Louisville, Kentucky.

"If the program is not extended, many of the translators will be either killed or forced to illegally migrate to Europe," Noori said.

For many SIV applicants, the Congressional inaction has deepened fears that the program will be discontinued, leading some who have waited years for an immigrant visa to the U.S. to take the riskier option of heading to Europe for asylum.

No quick fix

The State Department estimates it takes federal agencies at least 270 days to process a special immigrant visa, but immigrant advocates and Afghans who have come to the U.S. through the program say that, despite recent improvements, it can take a lot longer in some cases.

The processing time "varies incredibly, from one year to infinite," said Becca Heller, director of International Refugee Assistance Project at the Urban Justice Center, a New York-based advocacy group. "There are people who have been waiting for five or six years."

Last year, the International Refugee Assistance Project filed a lawsuit on behalf of Afghan and Iraqi translators who had been waiting up to six years to receive visas. Because of the lawsuit, 13 plaintiffs and their family members were granted visas.

The State Department says it has taken steps to reduce the processing time, including deploying additional personnel.

Still, a State Department official acknowledged that some cases "can take a significant amount of time."

The longest step in the process involves "administrative" review — the vetting and screening of applicants and their family members carried out by several agencies, including the State Department, Department of Homeland Security, United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS), and FBI.

A USCIS spokeswoman referred questions about administrative processing to the State Department. A State Department official declined to provide details about the process but said, "All visa applicants are thoroughly vetted to ensure they do not pose a threat to the security of the United States."

Shaheen said "anti-immigrant rhetoric" has had an impact on the Congressional debate over the SIV program, but with a wellspring of support from members of Congress and former and current military leaders in Afghanistan — including the top U.S. commander there, Gen. John Nicholson — she remained determined to secure an extension.

"I'm going to keep working in every opportunity that I can find," Shaheen said. "And I'm pleased there is bipartisan support for the program, and that those of us in the Senate — Senator McCain, Senator [Lindsey] Graham, Senator [Harry] Reid — those of us who have worked so hard to try to get this done are not going to give up. We're going to keep at it."