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Thousands of Afghans and Iraqis, under threat for helping Americans, hope Biden will help them resettle in the US

Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 17, 2020. A Green Beret, Waltz served in Afghanistan and is trying to help those who helped the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan as fixers and translators to immigrate to the United States.

MATT MCCLAIN/THE WASHINGTON POST

By ANNE GEARAN | The Washington Post | Published: December 30, 2020

Mohammad F., an interpreter who worked for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has a message for the incoming American president after waiting some four years for the outgoing one to help him resettle in the United States.

"Mr. President-elect Joe Biden; We helped you achieve your mission, now you help us we get to safty," he wrote in broken English from Afghanistan. "Thank you very much."

Mohammad signed off with "Best Regards" and his full name, along with his visa application case number, details that could put him at additional risk of retribution from the Taliban. The Washington Post is using his first name and last initial for his safety.

President-elect Joe Biden will inherit a backlog of tens of thousands of such cases from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — and a bureaucratic tangle that refugee advocates say President Donald Trump ignored or made worse.

"We have a moral obligation to those who served shoulder to shoulder with our men and women on the ground and who put their security and the security of their family members at risk," said retired Gen. David Petraeus, who commanded U.S. forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

The backlog includes about 17,000 Afghan translators and others who helped U.S. forces or diplomats and who are seeking special visas to resettle in the United States. With immediate family members who would come too, those applications represent an estimated 70,000 Afghans. The number for Iraqis is estimated at about 100,000.

Many claim harassment or death threats, and the danger may increase as Trump plans to withdraw additional U.S. forces from war zones where Americans have been deployed for nearly 20 years.

"I am so scared cant go any where even when i am going to my work place i feel today is my last day because every day target killing is going on," wrote Khaliqdad H., also in Afghanistan. "help me please go get out of this place. help me please."

"I was sufferd to much from being Interputer with the US army ( and my family )," wrote Abdullah A., in Iraq.

The interpreters are among more than 1,000 Iraqi and Afghan applicants who signed a petition to Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris this month.

"Many of them risked everything to work with U.S. Armed Forces in our countries (Afghanistan and Iraq) because we believe in America and its values. Because of this, we have been threatened and targeted" by the Taliban, the Islamic State and other armed groups that consider them traitors, the current and former interpreters wrote.

The petition does not blame Trump or even mention him. But advocates for the interpreters said that delays mounted over the past four years are due in part to new security and bureaucratic requirements, while denials for seemingly qualified applicants increased.

"Even people who applied at the end of Obama's time are still waiting, or their visa was denied for no reason during the Trump administration," said Janis Shinwari, a former Afghan interpreter who came to the United States under the special visa program seven years ago.

"It didn't happen before the Trump administration that visas were getting denied for no reason. Now I know hundreds of them," said Shinwari, a founder of the advocacy group No One Left Behind, which organized the petition.

The picture is complex.

Bureaucratic paralysis and confusing requirements predate the Trump administration, but worsened over the past four years with inexplicable or impossible demands of applicants that advocates claim are rooted in Trump's larger efforts to stem both illegal and legal immigration.

"From everything I know, they intentionally sabotaged it," said Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., a former Marine Corps officer in Iraq.

"I don't have direct evidence of that, but just listen to what they say," said Moulton, who helped one of his translators come to the United States. "They said from Day One, they are going to target immigration and target people who don't look like White Americans."

The Trump administration has far overshot the congressional mandate of nine months to process each case, with the average wait time now topping three years. Wait times also exceeded the nine-month window during the Obama administration, with officials from both administrations blaming the demands of performing rigorous background checks.

But amid massive cuts in the numbers of refugees admitted to the United States overall, the Trump administration worked with Congress to expand the number of visa slots theoretically available to interpreters and others who worked on behalf of U.S. forces or diplomats.

A government funding bill now at the heart of a dispute between Trump and many lawmakers would add 4,000 slots to the special visa program for Afghans, bringing the total available to 26,500 for 2021.

The Trump administration admitted more applicants overall from the special immigrant visa program than did the Obama administration in the four years before Trump was elected. The figure under Trump was 46,941; for Obama's second term the figure was 31,637.

But lawyers for would-be refugees say applications are frequently denied for reasons caused by the years-long delays between application and various stages of review, meaning applicants are being punished for the system's own failures.

"They submit into a black hole and for two or three years they hear nothing," said Deepa Alagesan, a senior attorney with the International Refugee Assistance Project.

Alagesan, whose organization sued both the Obama and Trump administrations over processing delays, said the initial application to the embassies in Kabul and Baghdad is often the biggest stumbling block. If the applicant moves past that screening, which refugee advocates complain is opaque and overly arbitrary, there may be 13 more steps to go before a visa is issued.

"It seems very much like it depends on who is reviewing," said Megan McDonough, a lawyer with IRAP who works directly with Afghan and Iraqi applicants.

The State Department inspector general calculated the average number of days it takes the government to process a successful Afghan special immigrant visa at 852, or about two years and three months. That does not include the time it takes applicants to submit paperwork and complete other tasks to move their cases from one rung of the bureaucratic ladder to the next.

Up to 4,000 Iraqis would have been able to immigrate to the United States in fiscal year 2020 under a separate program for Iraqi refugees who helped Americans or are members of a persecuted minority. The program admitted 161 Iraqis in the period ending Sept. 30, only partly as a result of delays and restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Biden has pledged to restore Trump's cuts to the separate general refugee program, which serves applicants from across the globe. The Trump administration has capped the number of refugees it will admit into the United States at 15,000 for 2021, a historic low.

Biden has not specified plans for the Afghan and Iraqi programs, but Antony Blinken, Biden's nominee to become secretary of state, has promised to expand them.

A spokesman for Biden's transition office declined to elaborate.

It is not clear how much Biden could expand or speed up the process right away, and refugee advocates plan to keep up the pressure.

The coronavirus pandemic has further slowed an already calcified process. No applicants were interviewed in person at the embassies in Kabul or Baghdad between the end of June and the end of September because of pandemic restrictions, a State Department official said. Such interviews are required.

"We are committed to ensuring those who sacrificed their own safety to help U.S. national security interests have an opportunity to seek refuge in the United States," said the official, who requested anonymity under rules imposed by the State Department.

The official pointed to the annual immigration set-asides for "these vulnerable individuals."    

The U.S. government does not track casualties among applicants, but volunteer groups working to help applicants estimate that at least 1,000 linguists have been killed while waiting for visas to leave Afghanistan and Iraq. No One Left Behind has catalogued more than 300 cases of targeted killings of interpreters or their families since 2014. Many of the victims were awaiting visas.

"I think it's indifference," chairman of the organization's board of directors James Miervaldis said of the Trump administration. "I won't use the word hostility. It's an indifference to this national security issue. It's always been an afterthought."

The State Department official said the administration has added resources dedicated to processing these visas "and taken steps to streamline the process at every application stage. Some cases require additional time to thoroughly evaluate the applicant's eligibility for a visa."

Afghan interpreters are especially vulnerable as the Trump administration works to foster a political deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban, said Ryan Crocker, a veteran U.S. diplomat who served as ambassador in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

"This isn't a peace negotiation, it's surrender talks," Crocker said of the agreement for troop withdrawals Trump has pursued. The process included a meeting between Taliban envoys and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last month and an unprecedented face-to-face meeting this month between the top U.S. military officer, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark A. Milley, and leaders of the Afghan insurgent force that American forces have fought since 2001.

"The Taliban knows they got this" so long as Trump's plan holds, Crocker said. "All they've got to do is spool this out and the country will be theirs."

Criticism of the visa system is bipartisan.

"The difficult thing over both the Obama and Trump administrations is just how slow the process is, how backlogged," said Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., a former Green Beret in Afghanistan and a frequent Trump ally. One of his interpreters, a trilingual whiz kid nicknamed Spartacus, was beheaded in 2008 along with male members of his family while awaiting asylum in the United States.

With an eye to Trump's efforts to slash immigration overall, Waltz said he has made the case to the White House that these cases are different.

"If we're talking about merit-based immigration, I can't think of anyone more deserving than those who stood and fought with us," Waltz said.

Trump has never publicly addressed the plight of translators seeking U.S. visas and has ignored the pleas of veterans and allies including Republican members of Congress that he act to speed up the process. Former interpreters were part of two Medal of Honor ceremonies Trump hosted at the White House, but Trump did not mention the visa program in his remarks.

Veterans groups and retired military officers criticized Trump recently for pardoning four former guards who opened fire on Iraqi civilians in a Baghdad traffic circle in 2007. The men, who worked for the American security contactor Blackwater, were convicted in 2014 in what was considered a triumph for the American justice system. The unprovoked attack on unarmed civilians killed or wounded 31, including children.

Zia Ghafoori, a former Afghan interpreter invited to the White House for the October 2018 ceremony honoring Staff Sgt. Ronald Shurer II, waited six years for his visa. He came to the United States in 2014 and now leads another refugee organization called the Interpreting Freedom Foundation.

"Every single day I was counting that I will get my visa today or tomorrow, that I could take my kids to the mainland and save their lives and to have a better future," Ghafoori said in an interview.

"I know a lot of interpreters that they worked with me still they have not received their visas and of course their lives are under threat every single second," which is a message he would like to deliver to Biden, Ghafoori said.
 

Janis Shinwari worked with U.S. forces as a translator in Afghanistan and became a U.S. citizen in June. His advocacy group, No One Left Behind, organized a petition of more than 1,000 Iraqi and Afghan interpreters seeking visas to the United States. Shinwari is photographed Dec. 20, 2020, in Woodbridge, Va.
MATT MCCLAIN/THE WASHINGTON POST