A U.S. counterintelligence Marine and a translator meet with local Afghan villagers in 2009 in Kirta, Afghanistan. (John Moore/Getty Images)

CONGRESS WISELY acted last year to keep faith with thousands of Afghans who worked side by side with U.S. and international forces in the war of the past decade and a half. The defense authorization bill, which President Obama signed in November, provided for 3,000 more visas for these courageous translators, interpreters and others to enter the United States and avoid potentially deadly reprisals, after they complete a 14-step, four-stage application process.

This benevolent act has now been complicated by ambiguity in the legislative language and a State Department decision on how to interpret it. The new law requires that people qualifying for Special Immigrant Visas must have completed two years of service, compared with one year in the past. Congress said the changed requirement should come into force for any person “submitting a petition” after Sept. 30, 2015.

The problem is the ambiguity around the word “petition.” The first stage in the process is approval by the chief of mission. Only after passing that does an applicant go to the second stage, known as Form I-360, and then onward to the last two stages, a visa interview and issuance. The State Department has decided to interpret the word “petition” to mean those who have reached the second stage by the deadline.

Unfortunately, this could leave in the lurch a large number of people whose applications have been pending in the first stage for some time and who now will not meet the new two-year eligibility requirements. We asked State Department officials why they did this, and their answer was that they consulted with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and decided that Congress meant the second stage in the process as the point of “petition.” The International Refugee Assistance Project protested that hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of Afghans will lose out as a result of this decision, through no fault of their own.

The Special Immigrant Visa programs for Afghans and Iraqis who worked alongside U.S. forces have a noble goal, but implementation has been slow and incomplete. This latest confusion seems to cry out for a simple revision of the department’s interpretation of the law. With the understandable need for a rigorous checking process, it should be U.S. policy not to leave behind anyone who qualifies among the thousands of Afghans and Iraqis who provided support to the troops.