We must act to help Afghans who served alongside US troops
As members of Congress from different parties, we don’t see eye-to-eye on President Biden’s decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. We don’t agree on timing, scope, or the rationale for leaving. But one belief we do share is that the United States should do everything in its power to support those Afghans who risked their lives serving alongside American servicemembers over the past two decades.
Throughout our time in Congress, we have both been strong advocates for the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program. We have met many of these brave men and women who are recipients of this visa. Some are translators and interpreters; others are doctors and engineers. This lifesaving program, created by Congress in 2009, provides a path to resettlement for Afghan nationals who assisted U.S. military and government operations during the wars in Afghanistan.
Since the creation of the program, over 20,000 SIVs have been issued to Afghan nationals. These individuals proudly served alongside our troops in the fight against terrorism. Not only did they put themselves in harm’s way to defend our country, but many continue to be targeted for helping us. Our allies share a deep and abiding commitment to the American values of freedom, democracy, and prosperity — and we cannot leave them behind.
In addition to the support they showed U.S. personnel overseas, our Afghan allies have enhanced our communities here at home once they arrive in the United States. Take the case of Naweed, who courageously served alongside American soldiers in all 32 of Afghanistan’s provinces, providing logistical support to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and then working for the U.S. Army as a researcher and freelancer.
While working in Afghanistan in 2015, Naweed was targeted for his work with the U.S. military and was badly injured in an attack. Thanks to the SIV program, Naweed was able to safely relocate to his new home in California, where he continues his work as a journalist and helps other Afghan SIV holders and immigrants build successful lives in the Sacramento community.
Despite stories like Naweed’s, the visa application process, which already includes an extensive security review, has been plagued by procedural hurdles and backlogs that are compounded by understaffing and a lack of coordination across U.S. agencies.
Applying for a SIV has turned into a 14-step process with an average wait time for applicants of three and a half years, despite the law requiring government processing of applications to be completed within nine months. Some Afghans have waited a decade before the first step in their application was approved. This is far too long.
According to the State Department, more than 7,000 SIVs allocated to Afghans by Congress went unissued in 2020, even though more than 18,000 visa applications were in the pipeline. This is unacceptable.
The brave men and women who served alongside our troops do not have the luxury of waiting. Many are stuck in bureaucratic limbo while still being hunted down by al Qaeda and the Taliban for helping Americans. According to reports, over 300 interpreters and their family members have been killed because of their association with the United States.
With the Sept. 11 deadline set and rapidly approaching for U.S. troops to withdraw from Afghanistan, the urgency to act on behalf of our Afghan allies is now. We must quickly process the backlog of applicants and ensure and that no further disruptions continue to backlog the system. Any delay means that Afghan translators and interpreters are at increased risked of being killed by our enemies.
We encourage the administration to look for creative ideas to address the problem, such as evacuating the remaining applicants and their families to a secure location in the United States or a territory while their visas undergo processing. We’ve done this before, using Guam for our Vietnamese allies in 1975 and our Kurdish allies in 1996, as well as military bases in the United States in 1999 for thousands of Kosovars. This option is cost effective, timely, and offers the opportunity to save lives before U.S. Forces withdraw from the country. We hope President Biden will consider using this and other historical tools to defend those who have served alongside our troops in Afghanistan.
In conjunction with the administration needing to take quick actions, Congress must continue its strong bipartisan support for the Special Immigrant Visa program and allocate the necessary additional visas.
American forces may be leaving Afghanistan by the end of this year, but the threat to the brave Afghans who helped the United States remains and will only worsen without our presence on the ground. We made a promise to protect those Afghans who assisted our country, and if we don’t act now, their lives and the lives of their families will be in grave danger. If we fail to act and uphold our commitment to our allies, what does that say to our allies around the world? We cannot turn our backs on our allies, and we cannot leave them behind. The time to act is now.
Bera represents the 7th District of California and Kinzinger represents the 16th District of Illinois.