Tariq, one of southern Afghanistan’s longest-serving interpreters, wants to know: How is it that one man can be praised as a hero and labeled a terrorist by the same government?
For years, Congress has considered amendments to an immigration policy that often brands innocent visa applicants as terrorists, an inadvertent byproduct of a post-9/11 homeland security initiative. But little progress has been made, U.S. officials say, and the government remains unable in many cases to discern the difference between allies and enemies.
The visa applications of several Iraqi interpreters were rejected for terrorism-related reasons during the last years of the Iraq war. And now, as the American military draws down its forces in Afghanistan and more than 6,000 Afghan interpreters seek U.S. visas, the problem is threatening to obstruct the applications of Afghans who risked their lives to serve the U.S. government.
Afghans have been denied visas because of ties to defunct U.S.-backed groups that fought the Soviets in the 1980s but are now designated as terrorist organizations. Others, who grew up under the Taliban, worry that they’ve been rejected based on assumed links to the insurgency.
It is unclear how many Afghans are in the same position as Tariq. Immigration lawyers say the denial — which they and others who follow the issue refer to as the “terrorist bar” — is common for applications from around the world, but particularly Afghanistan. The country’s tumultuous 30-year history of coups, warring tribes and armed uprisings, some say, means that attempts to cull terrorists are preventing U.S. allies from receiving visas they deserve.
“You have people who at some point had contact with the Taliban when they were in power, people who had contacts with the many armed groups that either preceded the Taliban or fought the Taliban,” said Anwen Hughes, a New York-based lawyer at Human Rights First who has handled several such cases. “You have many people being denied visas based on erroneous assumptions and misunderstandings.”
Tariq, who asked that his last name not be published to avoid Taliban threats, has worked alongside some of the top U.S. commanders in southern Afghanistan since 2006, when he was 17. Like many interpreters, he saw an American visa as his only route of escape from insurgents who regularly target locals aiding the Western military effort.
He first applied in 2008, submitting a stack of recommendations from American officers. One called him “a role model to his fellow citizens.” Another said his commitment had placed “himself and his family at risk.” Another added that he was a “strong supporter of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan.”