WASHINGTON – As President Joe Biden's September deadline for ending the long war in Afghanistan approaches, a bipartisan coalition in Congress is stepping up efforts to ensure that Afghans who face retribution there for working alongside U.S. troops and personnel are able to immigrate to the United States.
The group of Republicans and Democrats, many of them military members or veterans who have worked with translators, drivers and fixers in Afghanistan and other combat zones, is racing to put in place legislation to help the "Afghan allies," as they are often called, before U.S. troops go home, leaving those allies unprotected against revenge attacks by the Taliban. The lawmakers want to make it easier for the Afghans to qualify for special visas, to expedite the process of obtaining one and to get them out of Afghanistan as soon as possible while they await authorization to live legally in the United States.
More than 18,000 Afghans who have worked as interpreters, drivers, engineers, security guards and embassy clerks for the United States during the war are stuck in a bureaucratic morass after applying for Special Immigrant Visas — available to people who face threats because of work for the U.S. government — with some waiting as long as six or seven years for their applications to be processed.
The backlog doesn't count family members, an additional 53,000 people, or the anticipated surge in applications as U.S. troops withdraw.
"We're frustrated here as lawmakers, especially those of us who served and want to help the people who helped us," said Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, a colonel in the Army Reserve who worked with Iraqi translators when he served in Iraq as a combat surgeon in 2005 and 2006.
In recent weeks, Wenstrup said he had been thinking of the Iraqis he served with — guys who liked to sell art and bootleg movies at the Army base — including two who were killed in surprise attacks near Abu Ghraib, and a third who was ultimately able to get his visa and is now U.S. citizen and successful cardiologist in Ohio.
"They become your brothers and sisters," he said.
Wenstrup is part of the Honoring Our Promises Working Group — made up of 10 Democrats and six Republicans — that spearheaded legislation introduced Thursday that would expedite Special Immigrant Visas from Afghanistan and expand the number available to 19,000, from 11,000. The group is also lobbying the Biden administration in an improbable bid to arrange for a mass evacuation of Afghan applicants, perhaps to the U.S. territory Guam, while the visas can be processed.
"It's become very clear to us we had very little time left to help those in Afghanistan," said Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., the sponsor of the bill and a former Army Ranger who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. "I have pretty grave concerns."
While Biden set September as the withdrawal date, military officials have since indicated that the timetable has accelerated, with U.S. troops and NATO allies planning to leave by mid-July.
Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., a former Green Beret who still serves as a colonel in the Army National Guard, said Biden has little time to address the situation. "If he does not act and does not get these people out, blood will be on his hands and his administration's hands," Waltz said.
The nonprofit organization No One Left Behind has tracked the killings of more than 300 translators or their family members since 2014, many of whom died while waiting for their visas to be processed, according to James Miervaldis, the group's chairman and an Army Reserve noncommissioned officer.
In a survey conducted by the organization, more than 90% of the 464 Afghan allies asked said they had received at least one death threat because of their work with Americans.
"They are all universally terrified," Miervaldis said.
To varying degrees, the Special Immigrant Visa has been plagued by chronic delays and logjams for more than a decade. Crow said the problem had been made worse by former President Donald Trump, who he said had starved the program of resources and staff, and then the coronavirus pandemic, which shut down in-person interviews and vetting.
Abdul Wahid Forozan, 34, was a translator for the U.S. military in Afghanistan, came to America three years ago via the visa program and is now married, a father and working as a concierge in College Park.
In an interview, he described the decision to leave Afghanistan as painful.
"Homeland is loved by everyone, no one does not like their country," Forozan said. "But when your life is in danger, when your family's life is in danger, when every day you are threatened, I could not live in Afghanistan."