Visa program for Afghan military translators needs to be overhauled, Brown University report says
By SARAH CAMMARATA | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 5, 2021
WASHINGTON — Equipped only with English language skills and a bayonet, Najeeb Aminyar spent three years working for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan as an interpreter.
Aminyar first deployed in summer 2010 at age 20 to Kandahar — a southern province then considered a hotbed for the Taliban.
“It was one of the hardest jobs that I could sign up for, because I did not have formal training as a soldier… I was in the midst of the firefight,” said Aminyar, now a 30-year-old law student at Texas A&M University.
Shortly after arriving in Kandahar, he learned he was sent there to replace an Afghan interpreter who was shot and killed on the job. A day did not pass without casualties, he said.
Aminyar eventually worked in Kabul where he lived for years in isolation. He hid his work from everyone except his immediate family out of fear that word of his job would spread and he would be targeted and killed by insurgents.
When Aminyar discovered he was eligible for a special visa that would allow him to resettle in the United States, he applied. In May 2014, he arrived in Texas.
The process was complex and it took 17 months for his visa to be approved, he said.
Aminyar was more fortunate than many others, due in part to a supervisor who advocated on his behalf, such as contacting the U.S. Embassy to press for answers about his visa. Yet thousands of visa applicants, including translators and other civilian contractors, remain at risk as they wait for their approvals, which can take up to seven years.
A report released Monday from Brown University’s The Costs of War Project — a group of scholars and experts who research the human costs of the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — includes recommendations for how to improve the program that has long been criticized for bureaucratic inefficiencies and problems with the application process that make it difficult for people to provide necessary documentation.
Since the special immigrant visa program began, it has struggled to keep up with the high number of applications and the State Department has been slow to process them, according to a department inspector general report in 2020. The State Department report found understaffing for the visa program stops it from meeting a congressionally mandated nine-month response time for individuals, with some waiting up to seven years for a decision on their cases.
Noah Coburn, an associate dean for curriculum and pedagogy at Bennington College and the author of the new report, wrote assessments like the State Department review focus on the program’s bureaucratic hurdles. But independent studies also examine the department’s inability to keep up with demand, which has resulted in a backlog of almost 19,000 applications.
Coburn wrote in the report that the program for Afghans must be reformed by taking a human-focused approach to better support people who risk their lives in service of the U.S. government. That way, those who are put in a state of limbo can be protected from death threats and exploitation by brokers who promise assistance with their visa applications.
A review must “look beyond the current bureaucratic inefficiencies to the impacts that the current process is having on those who are potentially unsuccessful in their applications, as well as the aftereffects for those who do receive visas and settle in the United States,” Coburn wrote.
The cost for applicants waiting is high. The people who need the visas most are being killed, or they’re fleeing the country illegally, he said in the report.
“Without an almost complete overhaul of the current program, Afghans will continue to die as they wait for their visas to be processed,” he wrote in the report.
The report outlines other challenges when people do receive a visa, such as economic hardship and struggles to find employment.
Coburn’s research is backed by Vermont-based Bennington College, a non-governmental organization dedicated to fostering dialogue between the U.S. and countries with predominantly Muslim populations called the Hollings Center for International Dialogue, and No One Left Behind, an advocacy group that helps special immigrant visa recipients with financial and housing assistance.
Congress established the special immigrant visa program for Afghans in 2009 to offer safe passage to the U.S. for Afghans who are in danger of being killed due to their service to the U.S. government as translators or other civilian jobs. It also offers a streamlined path to U.S. citizenship and other benefits such as housing assistance.
Nearly 18,500 visas were issued from fiscal year 2009 to fiscal year 2019, but almost 19,000 applications were stalled as of September 2019, according to the 2020 review of the program by the State Department.
No One Left Behind has recorded more than 300 cases of translators or their family members being killed as a result of their alliance with the United States, according to Coburn’s report, though the U.S. government does not track this information so exact numbers are not clear. The visa process does not identify or prioritize applicants who are in the greatest danger, a possible change to the program that could provide additional support, such as moving applicants to a more secure country temporarily, Coburn said.
The report from The Costs of War Project comes as a multiagency review of the visa program is underway to address confusing bureaucratic procedures that have resulted in major backlogs. President Joe Biden directed the review in a February executive order on enhancing programs to resettle refugees.
Biden ordered Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to produce a report within 180 days of the Feb. 4 order to “ensure that these important programs are administered without undue delay.”
Their report will assess agency compliance with law regarding visa programs, any undue delays in processing applications, and whether the right guidelines exist for reopening or reconsidering visa applications, among other items.
The administration’s move to review the program drew praise from refugee advocates, veterans and lawmakers who have argued for years that the process of granting visas must speed up and more visas must be authorized by Congress.
The fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, which sets annual spending and policy priorities for the Pentagon, added 4,000 more visas to the program, immediately boosting the number of visas available for Afghan interpreters from 18,500 to 22,500.
Coburn wrote the report that the administration’s review is a “good step,” but unless “that review takes a closer look at the true human costs of its flawed processes, it is likely to result in little more than bureaucratic tinkering.”
The report makes recommendations beyond the need for more visa allowances and calls for a series of reforms. He said the administration’s review must examine the process holistically, such as how it impacts people who are denied visas due to challenges of understanding and gathering the necessary paperwork or finding a supervisor to write a letter of recommendation.
The government review must look for ways to better define the terms “threat” and “service” to support those in the most need of protection. Coburn said the threats that individual translators and other contractors face are not equal. Some contractors work in secure office jobs, while others put their lives at risk daily through military service.
About 100,000 Afghans have worked as contractors in support of the U.S. government. However, the actual number of Afghans could be as many as 300,000, Coburn said. It’s unclear because the U.S. government does not have a centralized database to track government contractors.
The creation of a database for contractors in conflict zones such as Afghanistan would allow applicants to prove they had worked for the U.S. government more easily, as well as provide a way for applicants to contact their former employers. Due to rapid turnover and short deployments for supervisors, some of them move to other countries to new positions and become difficult to contact, Coburn wrote in the report.
Coburn also said the process does not adequately support individuals' transitions to the United States. Tailored job and education assistance, as well as providing “specialized support” through resettlement agencies that focus on visa recipients, would also be helpful.
Coburn said in an interview that one Afghan who he interviewed described how the refugee resettlement program taught him some basic life habits.
“It’s like I’ve got a PhD from a university in Iran and you’re teaching me how to use the bathroom,” he said the translator told him.
Clumping visa recipients together with all refugees arriving in the United States does not allow Afghans to use their skills, he said.
This makes it so that individuals lose “the opportunity to contribute meaningfully [to society] in a similar way to the way that they have been,” he said in the interview.
Aminyar, who volunteers for the advocacy group No One Left Behind, said the assistance that he received when he arrived in the U.S. was “not enough.” The organization provides financial and housing assistance to individuals and families who have emigrated to the United States under the program.
Aminyar’s first job in the U.S. was at a window and door factory, where he worked from 3 p.m. to 3 a.m. Once he enrolled at a community college, he worked at night as a security guard.
However, Aminyar said those with a family often find it more difficult to be successful. He said other visa recipients he knows started college but had to drop out to support their family.