Last week, President Obama decided to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees to the United States. But there’s another group of foreigners who deserve our help much more – the 50,000 men and women who served as interpreters for American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
During my two deployments, I worked with countless interpreters. They were essential to my work and served at great personal risk. Interpreters are routinely killed by insurgents because they’re aiding the United States. One man I worked with was targeted by attackers who knew what car he drove and where he lived. While on the job, my interpreter’s brother took his car to town. Insurgents fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the vehicle, killing his brother and wounding his father.
Because of such dangers, many interpreters seek asylum in the United States. But while American government officials say they’re doing everything they can to bring the interpreters to safety, the State Department is chronically behind in processing their Special Immigrant Visa applications. (The SIV process is based on the process for refugee asylum but tailored specifically for individuals experiencing danger and threats tied to their service for the United States.) Just three visas were issued to Afghan translators in 2011; only 63 were given in 2012. Though Secretary of State John F. Kerry overhauled the system (the State Department processed 3,441 visas in 2014), officials estimate that there are thousands of men and women stranded at various points in the process.
The program is so complex, opaque and dysfunctional that I, as a native English speaker and child of the Defense Department, can barely make sense of it. Applicants are given little information regarding the status of their application. What is passed along by the State Department is cloaked in bureaucratic language. In one instance, I tried to help one of my interpreters fill out one of the several required forms. Even I could not understand what information the State Department wanted, nor the person who was supposed to fill out the form. Was it the applicant or the sponsor? There is no help line, “how to” page or instruction form designed for a non-native English speaker. The process is akin to filing your own taxes in a foreign language with no accountant to help.
If they successfully submit their application package, interpreters routinely wait a year before they know whether they can come to the United States. It is not uncommon for applicants to wait 14 to 18 months. One of my interpreters filed an application at least three times and was denied each time (after waiting 8 to 14 months) because of “improper paperwork.” No suggestions, critiques or help was offered. Furthermore, applicants must remain in Afghanistan while they wait, even though they are applying because they are in danger.
My last and best interpreter spent almost a year and a half by my side. He participated in the same patrols, spoke with the same elders, chastised the same police and faced the same enemy day after day. He survived numerous firefights, rocket attacks and close calls. He was present at every meeting I had with key Afghans and was instrumental in negotiating the establishment of several key checkpoints in Taliban-dominated terrain. He also interpreted while our team interviewed detainees who provided valuable information.
My interpreter applied for his visa in early 2015 and had his interview scheduled for the summer of this year. He was nervous but also prepared. He speaks almost flawless English. The woman who interviewed him, however, did not seem to understand who my interpreter was. She questioned him repeatedly about what office he was currently working in, stating that she was confused and that he was not providing enough information. She didn’t seem to know that my interpreter’s office at the International Security Assistance Force headquarters shares a wall with the embassy where she sat.
After the interview, my interpreter received a letter from the State Department stating that his application was undergoing “additional administrative processing” with no timeline or update to his status. His application was cleared for “administrative processing” only after my congressman became personally involved. My interpreter is still in Afghanistan undergoing the final, bureaucratic necessities. I still don’t know when he’ll arrive in the United States.
This is not as it should be. Before we bring 10,000 refugees to the United States, we must fulfill our responsibility to the Afghan and Iraqi interpreters who performed real, substantive and heroic service to America. I and many people I hold dear are alive today because of their work. The United States should be ashamed of itself for the way it has allowed the State Department to wallow in its own negligence.