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For interpreters for U.S. forces, time may be running out to get visas

Backlogged visa program for Iraqi and Afghan interpreters expires soon

Sep. 12, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
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Capt. Matt Zeller, left, was saved when his interpreter, Janis Shinwari, right, killed an approaching insurgent in 2008. Shinwari received a visa this month to come to the U.S., but others may not be so lucky.
Capt. Matt Zeller, left, was saved when his interpreter, Janis Shinwari, right, killed an approaching insurgent in 2008. Shinwari received a visa this month to come to the U.S., but others may not be so lucky. (Courtesy of Matt Zeller)
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The Taliban came for Ehsan’s life in the night a month ago, knocking on his father’s door, asking for Ehsan to come out. Ehsan is gone, his father told them and refused to open up.

Once, three strange men approached his 10-year-old brother asking, “Where is Ehsan?”

Ehsan used to elude Taliban checkpoints, but now he just stays indoors and hides. His face is too familiar, he cannot go out and he cannot work.

Ehsan, an interpreter for U.S. forces in Afghanistan for seven years, says his life is in danger as he waits to hear from the U.S. State Department about the status of his special visa application, which he hopes will enable him to emmigrate to America.

“Everybody knows, if they find me, they will kill me,” Ehsan, 32, told Army Times. “They told my father, ‘Tell Ehsan one day we will find you, and we will kill you.’ ”

Like Ehsan, thousands of Afghans and Iraqis who risked their lives while working for businesses or reconstruction operations that helped U.S. forces are waiting for visas to the U.S. under a special immigration program set up to aid them, advocates say.

Congress created the Special Immigrant Visa for Iraqis in 2008 and 2009 for the Afghans with the aim of helping them move to the U.S. faster than the often protracted refugee process.

But time may be running out. Unless Congress votes to renew it, the program would expire for Iraqis on Sept. 30 and for Afghans September 2014, even though the federal government has only issued22 percent of special visas allocated for Iraqis and 12 percent for Afghans.

As of March, 5,500 of 25,000 allotted for Iraqis were granted, and 1,050 out of 8,500 visas allotted for Afghans were granted.

Advocates say the requirements to apply for the visas can be unnecessarily onerous, with extensive paperwork, timelines and numerous agencies involved. The application process requires a medical exam and recommendations from former supervisors in the U.S. military, for example.

“We have clients who have been waiting for five years for an answer on their application,” said Katie Reisner, of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, which provides free legal advice to SIV applicants.

“They hear back that their application is in administrative processing mandated by Congress and that doesn’t tell them anything, and these are people who are trying to plan their lives,” Reisner told Army Times. “They are daily making contingency plans to protect their families.”

The State Department has “redirected and increased resources to improve efficiency at all stages of the SIV process without compromising national security,” said spokesperson Katherine Pfaff.

Pfaff said overall processing times have “improved significantly in the past two years,” and at the embassy in Kabul, there is no backlog in the initial step of the process. Wait times for initial visa interviews there have been “drastically reduced,” she said.

But Army Reserve Sgt. Brent Finnell, a law student, said an Iraqi handyman and translator he worked with in Baghdad, who he calls “Mr. Z,” has been waiting two years for a visa.

Complicating the application, Z was paid in cash, and the Americans he worked for shredded his receipts and other paperwork when they shuttered the Baghdad outpost where he worked.

“Just the whole system with all these cases is so bogged down, it’s so slow,” said Finnell, who has launched an Internet petition for the cause at Change.org .

Meanwhile, Z continues to receive death threats, Finnell said.

“There’s still a bounty on his head, and there are still people actively hunting him and trying to get information about where he’s at,” he said.

Ehsan, who asked to be identified only by his first name, has asked for help pressing his case from retired Army Capt. Matt Zeller, who prevailed on behalf of another of his interpreters, Janis Shinwari, who received a visa Sept. 9.

Zeller said Shinwari “became one of my best friends in life,” after he saved Zeller by killing an approaching insurgent in 2008. Zeller, then his base intel officer, made Shinwari his personal interpreter and trusted “validator of information.”

“The last thing he said to me was, ‘Matt, you have to get me my visa or I’m going to be killed,’” Zeller told Army Times. “I told him I’d do everything I possibly can.”

The good news for Shinwari came two years after he applied for his visa.

In the interim, Shinwari received threatening phone calls and written death threats from the Taliban, Zeller said.

Fed up with the red tape, Zeller lobbied several receptive members of Congress and launched a petition on Change.org. The cause attracted 100,000 signatures and the support of Marine Dakota Meyer, a Medal of Honor recipient.

They were also helped by the Truman National Security Project, where Zeller is a fellow, and the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, Zeller said.

After Shinwari and his family received their visas from the American Embassy in Kabul, Zeller and Shinwari celebrated in a phone call.

“He called me and said, ‘I’ve got my visa,’ and I’ve honestly never heard him that happy,” Zeller said. “We just talked about, OK, our kids are going to grow up together, and reminiscing about the last time when we saw each other in 2008.

But Zeller says this intensive, piecemeal approach is not a real answer, and Congress needs to act fast to renew the special immigration programs for Afghans and Iraqis.

“Ehsan did exactly the same stuff that Janis did for me and I’m happy to help him any way I can,” Zeller said. “I cried help very loudly, but I’m afraid that I can’t replicate that process.”

When Ehsan applied for a visa in 2012 there was no response for nine months. Four months after that, he was given an embassy interview appointment for late September, but he fears it will take months to get a final answer.

As the U.S. closed the base where he worked in preparation for its 2014 withdrawal, he was left without a job or the protection of the U.S. military.

“I hope I will get my visa and they will save my life, I’m sure they will save my life,” he said. “I am in a very dangerous situation.”

The process of requesting visas for his parents and siblings would be too cumbersome, he said, and in the best case scenario he would leave them behind to an uncertain fate.

“My father, my mother, everybody told me you can go, save your life, don’t worry about us,” he said. “I hope they will be safe, inshallah, I hope.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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