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Afghan visa program extended despite pushback from immigration foes

By ABIGAIL HAUSLOHNER AND KAROUN DEMIRJIAN | The Washington Post | Published: December 2, 2016

WASHINGTON — Hamidullah Amiri sometimes wakes in the middle of the night from the same nightmare. He's back in that village in eastern Afghanistan, a cluster of the men he called friends and colleagues--U.S. Navy Seals--just behind him, and a man has just stepped from a house, lifting a gun toward them from his cloak. "He was just a few yards away," Amiri remembers about the man who now visits him in his dreams.

Lying in the darkness of his new bedroom in the relative silence of suburban Virginia, Amiri, 29, tries to remind himself that those days are over. No one is trying to kill him anymore.

Last February, after four years of serving as an interpreter for U.S. forces in Afghanistan – and after surviving five roadside bombs, gun battles, a blast injury, and death threats – Amiri gained access to a new life in the United States through a program developed nearly a decade ago to protect the Afghans and Iraqis who served in America's deadliest ongoing wars.

But Amiri may be one of the lucky ones.

With the threat of program termination looming, negotiators to the annual defense policy bill this week struck a deal to authorize an additional 1,500 special immigrant visas (SIV) for Afghans who helped the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, and extend the program through 2017.

But the visas were hard won over the objections of lawmakers skeptical of the program, and advocates for more than 10,000 Afghans still hoping to follow Amiri's path worry there will not be enough to meet the need. The situation is unlikely to improve in Donald Trump's presidential administration after his loud vows on the campaign trail to curtail Muslim immigration to the United States, which helped foster anti-immigrant sentiment.

"It is no exaggeration to say that this is a matter of life and death as Afghans who served the U.S. mission continue to be systematically hunted down by the Taliban," Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said in a statement on Wednesday. "The number of visas needed for those in danger far surpasses what's provided in this bill."

The Afghan SIV program is the lone immigration program -- and one that admits primarily Muslims -- that has consistently attracted vast bipartisan support. That support has shrunk as the war in Afghanistan has faded into the past and suspicion of immigrants and Muslims has appeared to grow.

Amiri's story of service is not unique. Human rights and veterans groups have repeatedly criticized the SIV program since its inception, saying it is often too slow, too tied up in bureaucratic red tape, and too limited in scope to save all of the lives that it should.

According to the State Department, there are already 13,000 Afghans "at some stage" of the visa pipeline, and as of early October, there were only 1,632 visas left to give out.

Even with the additional visas, which will go online next year if Congress passes the defense policy bill this month, nearly 10,000 Afghans could still be left in limbo.

Members of the House and Senate Judiciary committees -- which have jurisdiction over immigration programs -- led formidable opposition to the program this year. In the Senate, Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions, Trump's nominee for attorney general, warned of potential abuse in the program, while House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., argued that the program is not restrictive enough in its selection.

"We just need to be careful about this," Sessions told The Associated Press earlier this year. "Just because you've got applicants doesn't mean every one of them is deserving of acceptance."

Critics also worry that the program costs too much and that the dangerous conditions claimed by many interpreters is exaggerated.

"There must be reasonable limits on these programs," Goodlatte said in an emailed statement last month."Currently there are thousands of unused visas that have been set aside for Afghans who have helped the United States during the war. If these visas run out, Congress will be able to revisit this issue to determine if more should be allocated."

Program advocates say visa applicants already submit to one of the most rigorous screening processes in the world.

Under language that has gradually tightened in recent years, Afghan applicants--all of whom have obtained some level of security clearance in order to work alongside U.S. troops or government officials in Afghanistan--must prove they have worked for the United States for at least two years, and must submit to intensive screening by multiple U.S. security agencies, including the CIA. The process, which involves interviews, medical check-ups and extensive documentation, can feel open-ended, lasting for more than three years in some cases.

"According to the State Department, we've let in over 43,000 Iraqis and Afghans since 2008, and not a single one of them has ever been tried for material support for terrorism," said Matt Zeller, the retired U.S. Army captain who founded the non-profit No One Left Behind to lobby for Afghans and Iraqis who helped the U.S. mission.

At the outset, the SIV program allowed for 7,500 visas to be distributed over five years. Subsequent extensions created an additional 7,000 visas -- but under current law their availability expires at the end of 2016.

Congress has typically extended the program each year by adding additional visas as part of the defense policy bill. The deal announced this week will allow for 1,500 additional visas, but stiffer requirements, including preference given to those serving outside of U.S. military bases, according to congressional staffers familiar with the deal.

It will also represent a more modest number of visas than those authorized in years past.

Once an interpreter like Amiri arrives in the United States, the program provides for eight months of government assistance, a green card and a fast track to citizenship.

Many SIV recipients speak good English and quickly become contributing members of society, refugee advocacy groups claim. U.S. military commanders have also advocated for the program, arguing that protection of the foreign nationals who serve in U.S. missions abroad is vital to America's national security interests.

Abandoning the Afghans who served alongside U.S. forces could send the message "that America has abandoned them, and in kind, they are now free to abandon our forward deployed troops," 36 retired military leaders and organizations warned in a letter circulated on Capitol Hill earlier this fall. What incentive would any Afghan or other ally have to cooperate with and serve alongside the U.S. military?"

Earlier this year, in the midst of a heated presidential election campaign, Shaheen said Sessions and his allies were ready to approve an extension of the program as a "one for one" trade -- they would grant more Afghan SIVs if the program's proponents agreed to reduce the number of visas available in another, entirely unrelated immigrant visa program.

"This is not about the Afghans who have helped," Shaheen said, surmising that the request was in keeping with other anti-immigration rhetoric voiced by Trump's campaign. "This is about certain individuals grandstanding with the base."

Sessions did not respond to repeated phone calls and emails about the program.
 

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