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Tariq, who asked that his last name not be published to avoid Taliban threats, has worked alongside some of the top U.S. commanders in southern Afghanistan since 2006, when he was 17.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.”
For years, he checked the status of his application online and added more glowing recommendations to his file.
Last September, Tariq received an e-mail from the State Department that said his application had been denied because he “may be a terrorist or may have provided material support to a terrorist organization.” The letter did not specify which organization. Despite the accusation, his job with the U.S. military at Kandahar Airfield was not terminated.
“I never expected the State Department would take this kind of unfair decision,” Tariq said. “My question is, if I am involved in terrorist activities, why am I still working for U.S. Army?”
Tariq racked his brain to determine what might have triggered the accusation. He had grown up in Kandahar, a Taliban stronghold, which meant he had been forced to attend a madrassa run by the hard-line Islamist group. His father was in the Afghan air force before the Taliban came to power, and, like most of his colleagues, remained in his position under its rule.
But the family by no means supported the Taliban, said Tariq, who jumped at the opportunity to work for U.S. forces after the regime fell.
The Department of Homeland Security occasionally provides exemptions for applicants denied on terrorism-related grounds and has recently agreed to review some cases of long-term visa applicants who are already living in the United States. But in general, those who are turned down have little recourse.
‘Painful and frustrating’
Jamshid, who fled Afghanistan in 1988 and was granted asylum in the United States, received the same denial as Tariq when he applied for permanent residence. Immigration officials wrote in 2008 that Jamshid was ineligible because he had helped carry supplies — what the denial referred to as voluntary material support — for the National Islamic Front of Afghanistan (NIFA), an arm of the U.S.-backed mujaheddin.
NIFA no longer existed, and it was a former U.S. ally. But like several anti-Soviet Afghan groups, it remained on the U.S. government’s list of “Tier III,” or “undesignated” terrorist groups created by the Patriot Act of 2001. Some Iraqi interpreters who were members of groups that fought Saddam Hussein have received similar denials.
“I was helping people getting aid and support from United States. And now they consider me a terrorist here. It’s a painful and frustrating way to live,” Jamshid, 40, said by phone from the United States. He did not want his full name published for fear of jeopardizing his ongoing application process.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has long been critical of the terrorist bar’s broad application, pleading with the government in 2009 to “restore common sense” to the definition of terrorism and material support. Yet there has been little movement. In 2007, Congress passed legislation removing 10 organizations from the list of Tier III terrorist groups, but no related legislation has been introduced.
“Senator Leahy has continued to press the administration on this issue, through letters and requested briefings, to ensure the prompt processing of visas for those men and women who have risked their lives to protect the United States,” said a Judiciary Committee aide who was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.
Of the 6,000 Afghan interpreters who have applied for U.S. visas under a special program tailored to U.S. government employees, only about 50 had been approved by late last year.
Because the State Department does not explain the specific reasons for denying visas to overseas applicants, Tariq was left guessing about his alleged terrorist connections.
“We are prohibited from discussing individual cases. . . . However, we would note that the ‘material support’ bar applies only to those who provided the material support to a terrorist activity, a terrorist group or individual,” a U.S. official said.
There is no appeals process, the official added.