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November 20, 2017

Congress Authorized 3,500 New Afghan Special Immigrant Visas, but the Fight is Not Over

Last week Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018. President Trump is expected to sign the bill into law within ten days.

The bill authorizes 3,500 Afghan Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) for the brave Afghans who served alongside U.S. military forces and came under threat for that work. 3,500 more of these allies will now have the opportunity to resettle in the United States this year. It’s been a long and hard-fought victory.

Why do these visas matter? “Any veteran who served overseas will tell you that our mission, and sometimes our lives, depended on the interpreters, translators, and other local allies,” says Joe Jenkins, a leader in Veterans for American Ideals, a project of Human Rights First. “They stood alongside us—at great risk to their own lives.”

Former Navy SEAL Eric Gardiner agrees. John Amiri served as his interpreter, comrade, and friend in Afghanistan. Eric relied on John’s skills during high-level missions. Then John received a threatening note from the Taliban.

Eric worked tirelessly to help John apply for his SIV. The program enabled John to start a new life in America. Their friendship is documented in #WhatIFoughtFor, a digital storytelling campaign launched on Veterans Day that tells the stories of veterans and refugees.

Veterans for American Ideals pressed Congress for 4,000 new visas this year, but nonetheless VFAI applauds this important step in keeping faith with critical allies. Late last year, the outlook for interpreters and translators still in Afghanistan was grim: the program was set to expire.

VFAI members sprang into action, identifying champions from both political parties, such as  Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), John McCain (R-AZ), Jack Reed (D-RI), Tom Tillis (R-NC) and Representatives Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Steve Stivers (R-OH), and Seth Moulton (D-MA).

By sharing personal stories as experienced veterans and engaged citizens, VFAI leaders convinced lawmakers that continuing the Afghan SIV program is a vital to our national security.

However, due to political infighting, only 1,500 of the 4,000 Afghan SIVs we requested were authorized for 2017. The program would continue, but the fight wasn't over: in early 2017, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul announced that it had stopped taking visa interviews altogether. They had more applicants far along in the approval and screening process than remaining visas authorized by Congress.

VFAI leaders rolled up their sleeves. With the goal of securing more visas, they partnered with fellow veteran groups like No One Left Behind and others, building a coalition comprised of over 150,000 military veterans to send letters to every member of Congress.

Human Rights First also garnered bipartisan support for Afghan SIVs from respected military leaders and national security experts like retired four-star General Carter Ham and Ambassadors James Jeffrey and Richard Olson.

On Capitol Hill, veterans underscored that the United States is known as a country that keeps its promises and never forgets its allies. To leave a man behind would be antithetical to the military ethos as well as American ideals.

Congress heard the message loud and clear. Through the omnibus legislation in the Consolidation Appropriations Act in May 2017, Congress allocated an additional 2,500 visas for this year.

When it came time to negotiate NDAA for Fiscal Year 2018, Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) worked with Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Since immigration affairs are under his committee’s purview, he waived jurisdiction, allowing the Afghan SIV program to be tucked into this year’s NDAA.

As a result, the defense omnibus conference report, a compromise version of the bill agreed to by both the House and Senate, included 3,500 visas to bolster the Afghan SIV program. Last week, the bill was handily approved by both chambers.

While Vets for American Ideals is proud of our success in protecting our Afghan allies, the battle is far from over. Congress and this nation must not forget the backlog of approximately 10,000 Afghan interpreters and translators who wait in the pipeline, endangered due to their service.

For our Iraqi wartime allies, the situation is even more complex. The Iraqi SIV program stopped accepting applications in 2014. Instead, Iraqis must apply through the Direct Access Program under the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. Through the Direct Access Program, applicants can apply for resettlement without a referral from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

However, the Trump Administration issued an executive order in late October that effectively put all Iraqi resettlement cases on hold for an additional 90 days. The order also places onerous restrictions on refugees from 11 majority-Muslim countries and indefinitely bans some family reunification cases.  

This week, a federal lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle, pursuing a nationwide block against the executive order. One of the plaintiffs, U.S. Army veteran Allen Vaught, has been fighting to bring his Iraqi translator to the U.S. since 2014.

"[The administration’s] executive order is inconsistent with the American values I fought for as an officer in the United States Army,” Vaught said.

Each year that the United States commits military forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, more of our allies will turn to us for help. VFAI leaders will continue the fight to ensure they are never left behind.