Visas for deserving Afghans: Our moral responsibility

For 13 years, Afghans have worked alongside U.S. troops and diplomats keeping America safe, knowing full well that simply working with Americans puts them and their families in danger. 

In 2006, Congress recognized our obligation to help those who helped us by creating a special visa category for interpreters and translators who assisted U.S. military forces in Afghanistan and in Iraq.  In 2009, Congress made the visa program available to Afghans endangered by their work for any U.S. government agency, including the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development.  Since then, more than 10,000 Afghans and their family members have received visas.

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Currently there are sufficient numbers of visas for Iraqis, but there are many more Afghans who have qualified for visas and who remain in harm’s way, and we need urgent congressional help to honor our commitment to them.

This year, Congress allocated 3,000 visas for Afghan interpreters, and by the end of this month – due to improvements in our processes – we will have issued them all to deserving Afghans.  Unfortunately, there are still 6,000 Afghans in various stages of the visa process, including nearly 300 who have completed every part of the process and await only the last, most important step:  receiving the visa in their passports.  The State Department cannot legally issue these visas without congressional action and, so, these Afghans – who have done everything right and who have served our country – will be in limbo and in danger.

Prior to this year, the State Department and our interagency partners were the ones struggling to move these cases forward.  We heard every day from interpreters and their advocates that they were frustrated, despondent, and scared.  We needed to act.

Under Secretary of State John Kerry we launched a thorough review of U.S. government procedures to identify areas where we could improve.  To make the process more transparent, we sent embassy officials across Afghanistan to explain procedures to potential applicants.  We added an appeals process for those who had previously been turned down.  We loaned State Department staff to our interagency partners to help clear backlogs.

We cut the average processing time in half, and issued more visas this year than in all the previous years combined.

Now Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) have proposed legislation to fix this.  This is not a partisan issue; it is an issue for all Americans who believe that our country should help those who have helped us.  Congress has always acted honorably when it comes to this program.  The bill to extend the Iraqi SIV program (on which the Afghan program was modeled) passed unanimously during last fall’s government shutdown, a bright spot during an otherwise bleak time in politics.

This great nation made a promise to Afghans who worked with us during the war.  We promised that if they lent us their skills and served us faithfully, we would offer them a way out if they faced a serious threat.  It is our moral responsibility to live up to that promise and to do it now.  The State Department and our colleagues at other agencies have made this a priority.  I am hopeful that Congress will once again do the same.

Higginbottom is deputy secretary of State for Management and Resources.