WHEN VICE PRESIDENT Pence was a member of Congress, he attended a hearing on the question of providing special immigrant visas to the interpreters and translators for U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr. Pence said he was wholeheartedly behind these battlefield allies, who often braved death threats and put their families at risk of retribution. At a March 26, 2007, hearing, Mr. Pence declared, “I think there is nothing more important than the United States of America saying to people in Iraq or anywhere in the world, if you stand by us, we will stand by you, and that is the level of urgency that I feel.”
Almost 12 years later, Mr. Pence is vice president in an administration that, along with Congress, seems to be forgetting its obligations. An estimated 19,000 Afghans who served the United States are stuck at various stages of a slowing visa process. Overall, as Alex Horton reported in The Post last week, since Congress created the Afghan Allies Protection Act of 2009, nearly 16,000 principal Afghan applicants have been approved for visas. But during the Trump administration, the number approved has been dwindling. Last fiscal year, 1,649 such visas were processed for Afghans, down from 4,120 in fiscal 2017. There are believed to be about 3,000 visas approved by Congress still available.
So far this fiscal year, Congress has approved zero new visas; it should authorize at least 4,000 more. Compounding the problem are lengthy delays in security checks. Congress required the State Department to take no longer than nine months, but the average wait time is 23 months.
Afghan applicants must demonstrate that they provided faithful and valuable service to the United States, worked for at least two years in a qualifying capacity, and face serious and ongoing threats because of their work. They must pass extensive security checks. For those who qualify, the program is a worthwhile reward for interpreters, translators and support workers who have stood with U.S. forces during the long war. For obvious and understandable reasons, they now fear they may be left behind. They not only took the risks of being in combat but also face danger when they go home and are often targeted by the Taliban. The war could not have been fought without them. Will it end with them stranded?
The Iraq special visa program closed to new applicants in 2014, and those who worked with the United States must apply through the Direct Access Program (DAP), a part of the refugee admissions process. Admissions of Iraqis through the DAP have fallen precipitously, from 7,122 in fiscal year 2015 to only 51 in fiscal 2018, according to the International Refugee Assistance Project, which estimates there are 100,000 people backlogged in the DAP.
The spirit of “if you stand by us, we will stand by you” is being lost. The president and Congress need to keep America’s word to its battlefield partners, approve new visas for Afghanistan this year and eliminate the backlogs.