Two men continue to stand out in my memory for their service to our nation. Taj, for instance, worked for the U.S. government for more than 20 years; he returned from Pakistan after the fall of the Taliban as the first local staffer in the reopened embassy. He was there when I first raised our flag in early 2002. His outreach to imams to discuss religious tolerance and women’s rights under the Koran has achieved measurable results in fighting extremism. Another, Reza, helped connect embassy leadership with politicians and thought leaders, supporters and critics, to hear their concerns and ideas. To protect these brave men and their families, I can use only their first names here.
As a result of their service, many allies like Taj and Reza have faced — and continue to face — security threats so serious that they are unable to remain in their home countries. From 2006 to 2009, I worked closely with the Congress to establish special immigrant visa (SIV) programs for Afghans and Iraqis that enable our brave partners to come to safety in the United States because of the sacrifices they made on our behalf. Although Iraqi and Afghani “special immigrants” do not technically come as refugees under the law, that is exactly what they are, in essence: people persecuted because of their political actions and in urgent need of protection. Reza, for example, faced Taliban death threats for his work assisting our embassy and now lives in the United States.
In an era of partisan rancor, this has been an area where Republicans and Democrats have acted together. Congress has continued to support policies aimed at protecting our wartime allies by renewing the Afghanistan SIV program annually — demonstrating a shared understanding that taking care of those who took care of us is not just an act of basic decency; it is also in our national interest. American credibility matters. Abandoning these allies would tarnish our reputation and endanger those we are today asking to serve alongside U.S. forces and diplomats.
By welcoming these Afghans, we would offer a powerful counter-narrative to the propaganda of the Islamic State and other extremist groups, which claim that the United States is hostile to Muslims. Turning our backs on people who worked with us would appear to give credence to the extremists’ lies.
The need for help is particularly great this year as the U.S. military has reduced its presence in Afghanistan. There are 10,000 Afghans in the SIV application backlog. But the State Department has fewer than 4,000 visas remaining, which would leave more than 6,000 Afghans stranded in a country where their work for the United States means they are no longer safe. State requested 4,000 additional visas so that it can continue to process applications. Yet even these additional visas are not enough to protect all the Afghans and Iraqis who have worked and continue to support the United States abroad.
But the legislation, as it passed the House Armed Services Committee last week, goes in the opposite direction. Despite this backlog, the bill has no provision to increase the number of visas. It restricts the criteria for eligibility to military interpreters and translators who worked off-base and individuals who worked on-base in “trusted and sensitive” military support roles, excluding Afghans who worked in non-military roles such as on-base security, maintenance and support for diplomats and other government entities. Neither Taj nor Reza would have qualified under such revised criteria. When deciding whom to kill, the Taliban do not make such distinctions in service — nor should we when determining whom to save.
There is still time to save and strengthen this essential program. This week, the Senate Armed Services Committee is considering the bill. In past years, the bipartisan efforts of leaders like Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) have kept these essential visa programs intact, and I hope they can do the same this year. Congress should both expand this essential program and work to fix the delays in processing that are weakening it.
This is truly a matter of life and death. I know hundreds of people who have been threatened because of their affiliation with the United States. Some have been killed. Today, many are in hiding, praying that the United States keeps its word. We can and must do better.