Veterans Hail Biden-Ordered Review of Visa Program for Iraqi, Afghan Military Interpreters

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Spc. Alaa Jaza, an Arabic linguist at Camp Taji, Iraq
Spc. Alaa Jaza, an Arabic linguist attached to Troop A, 5th Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, advises Iraqi Army soldiers with the 73rd Brigade, 15th Division, on how to set battle positions to avoid friendly fire during a training event at Camp Taji, Iraq, Wednesday, March 25, 2015. (Cody Quinn/U.S. Army)

Zach Iscol has twice fought to secure a U.S. visa for interpreters who fought alongside him in war zones. He's been successful only once.

A decorated former Marine Corps officer, Iscol was able to vouch for Iraqi linguist Khalid Abood and his family, who faced death threats in Baghdad -- but only after an aggressive lobbying campaign that culminated in testimony on Capitol Hill in 2007.

"The day I testified, Abood got refugee status," Iscol told Miitary.com this month. "[Then-Sen. Arlen Specter] said, 'Do we need to hold a hearing for every single translator?'"

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An estimated 100,000 Iraqis and 17,000 Afghans still await adjudication in special programs designed to grant safe passage to the U.S. for interpreters who served faithfully -- and at great risk -- alongside American troops. A new executive order from President Joe Biden calling for a detailed review of the program designed to help them is being hailed as an important step to address systemic failures, communication gaps and delays that can stretch for years.

The executive order, released Feb. 4, calls for a joint review of the special immigrant visa, or SIV, programs serving Iraqi and Afghan allies, to be completed by Secretary of State Antony Blinken in consultation with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas.

A report to be delivered to Biden within six months will assess and provide the following:

  • Agency compliance with law around SIV programs
  • Any undue delays in processing applications, including those due to understaffing
  • A plan to provide "training, guidance and oversight" in processing of SIV applications
  • A plan to track the progress of senior program coordinators
  • Whether the right guidelines exist for reopening or reconsidering visa applications.

Additional elements of the order call for reviews of existing procedures with an eye to ensuring the process gives applicants a fair opportunity; providing alternate procedures for cases where the requirement of employer verification is not possible; ensuring these verification requirements do not cause undue delays; and setting in place anti-fraud measures.

While Congress has consistently approved thousands of visas every year for Iraqi and Afghan interpreters, and the backlog of demand exceeds that allowance, program delays and stringent application requirements mean many of those visas go unused.

According to the State Department, 11,500 visas have been approved since the start of fiscal 2018 for Afghan interpreters and their families.

Betsy Fisher, director of strategy for the International Refugee Assistance Project, said she had counted 6,285 visas issued since then.

"Roughly 5,200 visas are just sitting there, waiting to be issued, while the security situation in Afghanistan, by all accounts, has been deteriorating," Fisher said.

A quarterly report released Jan. 30 by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction documented Taliban violence escalating in Kabul and the southern part of the country and reported that thousands of Afghan civilians had to flee their homes. Operation Resolute Support reported 5,500 Afghan civilian casualties in the last half of 2020 alone.

A separate visa program allotted 4,000 spots for Iraqis serving with Americans in 2020; as of the end of September, only 123 had been resettled, according to the organization Human Rights First.

Fisher said communication breakdowns and incomplete oversight were to blame for some of the problems.

"We see all sorts of errors and snafus," she said. "Congress removed an eligibility requirement in late 2019, and we're still seeing rejections on the basis of that requirement."

Add to that the difficulty interpreters in war zones have gathering required documentation, such as proof of employment.

"Sometimes, we've actually seen that the [interpreter's] supervisor is dead before the chief of mission at the embassy in Kabul gets around to processing [the visa application]," she said.

In December, more than 1,000 Afghan and Iraqi visa applicants signed a petition directed to Biden, then president-elect, asking him to fix the problem, The Washington Post reported.

James Miervaldis, an Army veteran and chairman of the board of the organization No One Left Behind, said he was "over the moon" with the reporting and changes directed in Biden's mandate.

"We could not have hoped for a better executive order," he said. "This answered all of our concerns."

No One Left Behind advocates for interpreters in the SIV programs and also seeks to provide housing and financial help to successful applicants after they arrive in the U.S.

Miervaldis, a former Army staff sergeant, spent three years working to help his own Afghan interpreter secure a U.S. visa, even though he says the application was supported by a letter of recommendation from then-U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan James Cunningham. Despite well-placed advocates, including veterans in Congress who have labored on behalf of their own former interpreters, Miervaldis said delays and breakdowns have only gotten worse as years pass.

"It's an interagency problem. No one agency owns all parts of the process," he said. "No One Left Behind has been working on some high-priority cases. And even then, even though we have high-level people involved with letters of recommendation, nothing's getting through."

Iscol, who went on to co-found the military news website Task and Purpose and is currently running for New York City comptroller following a brief mayoral campaign, has been working for 15 years to bring over another Iraqi interpreter, nicknamed Frank, who was shot and wounded alongside U.S. troops in Fallujah in 2004. Frank's application has been in limbo, he said, despite letters of recommendation from multiple generals.

While Iscol's other former interpreter, Abood, died in the U.S. in 2011, he still stays in touch with his widow and children, including two daughters who are now officers in the New York Police Department.

Iscol said he's hopeful that the Biden-ordered review, and particularly the assessment of visa application requirements, will bring meaningful change.

"When the U.S. government makes something a priority, they can do it. Like any organization, it's about holding people accountable and making getting translators over here a priority and clearing the system," he said.

" ... Frank and Abood, they wore the Marine Corps uniform in combat. And there doesn't seem to be any real effort on the part of the bureaucracy to help them."

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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