Pentagon & Congress

4,000 more Afghan interpreters could get special immigrant visas, thanks to defense bill

An additional 4,000 Afghan interpreters who helped U.S. troops in Afghanistan could receive Special Immigrant Visas, thanks to a provision included in the National Defense Authorization Act the House passed last week.

The legislation, if passed in the Senate, means that a total of 22,500 visas through the Special Immigrant Visa program could be issued to former Afghan interpreters — up from the 18,500 limit previously in place.

“Anything we can do to show our appreciation for those interpreters that want to come over, we got to do everything we can to help them out,” retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. Ty Edwards told Military Times.

Edwards knows firsthand the contributions of Afghan interpreters to U.S. troops, and doubts he’d still be alive today if it weren’t for his interpreter, Qudratullah Hakimi.

On Oct. 20, 2008, Edwards and Hakimi were in a Humvee on a resupply mission in Afghanistan’s Kunar Province when they and other vehicles they were traveling with were ambushed by insurgents.

Several other Afghan National Army vehicles were in front of Edwards in pick up trucks, and started to return fire at the insurgents. Edwards, who was the vehicle commander, exited the Humvee to check on his Afghan counterparts but was subsequently shot in the head.

“Hakimi was the first one to see if I was still alive,” Edwards said.

According to Edwards, Hakimi alerted Navy corpsman Stephen Albright to provide Edwards with medical attention. Meanwhile, Hamkimi had suffered his own injuries but was armed and provided cover so Albright could tend to Edwards’ wounds.

“They’re out there risking their lives too,” Edwards said about Afghan interpreters.

Unlike U.S. troops who are stationed on bases, Edwards noted that interpreters’ lives are always in jeopardy, even when they are in the confines of their own home.

“These guys got to go home at night,” Edwards said. “They’re always in danger of people trying to kill them. A lot of our interpreters would tell us about wearing disguises.”

Hakimi told Military Times the deep relationships he had with all the troops he served with during his six years as an interpreter fostered a mutual trust between both parties.

“It’s more than just being an interpreter,” Hakimi said. “It’s a partnership, and there’s a huge trust between the interpreters and the troops. If it wasn’t for the interpreters, I would say that the operations in Afghanistan would be a lot more challenging than it currently is."

In addition to Edwards, lawmakers including former Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and former Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla., got involved in Hakimi’s case. Furthermore, local media reports drew attention to his situation.

Even still, it took four years for Edwards and Hakimi to work with the State Department so Hakimi could come to the U.S. in 2013. Edwards attributed the drawn out process to dealing with “a lot of red tape.”

“Anything we can do to eliminate red tape is great in my book,” Edwards said.

According to Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., there are approximately 20,000 Afghan applications stuck and need to be processed for the Special Immigrant Visa program.

As a result, the legislation also calls for the State Department Inspector General to compile a report for Congress examining the backlog and “obstacles” in the program. It also calls for the watchdog to provide recommendations for how future programs can be improved.

Hakimi said the length of time it takes to get approved varies dramatically, even among applicants with similar backgrounds. For example, his brother also served as an interpreter to U.S. troops in Afghanistan and had his application green lighted in just four months. Although he and Hakimi applied at the same time, Hakimi was waiting in Afghanistan for years — and it was unclear why.

“There are a lot of interpreters that deserve to be here, but they’re still in Afghanistan and the reason is unknown,” Hakimi said.

If he hadn’t left Afghanistan, he isn’t sure what his life would look like now. Regardless, he would be living a much more dangerous life than he does now in the U.S., he said.

Given the reduction of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Hakimi said he financially would not be doing well because he could be unemployed. Furthermore, his life could be in jeopardy if his role assisting U.S. troops was known.

“When you live in Afghanistan, you live day to day,” Hakimi said. “It’s a matter of how I’m supposed to survive today. You can’t think of tomorrow, or a week, or a month, a future.”

The House passed the NDAA on Dec. 11, and the Senate is poised to vote on the measure later this week. Lawmakers must approve all 12 appropriations measures before Friday to prevent a government shutdown.

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