EXPLAINER: U.S. Special Immigrant Visas for Afghan and Iraqi Interpreters

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Phil Schmidt and AK talk every day. They think of each other as family. But the two, who were recently profiled in an article on NPR, have never met because Schmidt lives in the U.S. and AK lives in Afghanistan.

They met online after Schmidt’s son, Jonathan, died fighting with U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan. AK was an interpreter in his unit. Now, Schmidt wants to bring AK to the United States.

“He’s been shot at, blown up, wounds to his chest and legs, he’s been doing this since he was 19.,” Schmidt told NPR of the 27 year old AK. “Putting himself in harm’s way, to help us.”

Like thousands of other interpreters in Afghanistan and Iraq who are helping U.S. forces, AK is eligible for a Special Immigrant Visa. Unfortunately, the process for getting that visa has been slow for AK as it has been for many others.

Here’s what you need to know about Special Immigrant Visas and what you can do to help people like AK who have risked their lives to help U.S. troops:

What is a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV)?
A Special Immigrant Visa is offered to Afghan and Iraqi nationals who worked with the U.S. Armed Forces or a U.S. Embassy as a translator or interpreter for at least 12 months. Also, he or she must obtain a written recommendation from a General or Flag Officer of the U.S. Armed Forces or from the Chief of Mission from the embassy.

Why do interpreters apply for SIVs?
U.S. Forces and embassies work with Afghan and Iraqi nationals as translators and interpreters in those conflict zones.  

As a result of their work, many interpreters face the danger of retaliation by the Taliban and other groups who see the United States as the enemy. The interpreters’ families are also under threat because of their work.

A report by the Marine Corps Times detailed how an interpreter named Aslam received threatening phone calls and letters from insurgents while waiting for his visa. Most of the 50 interpreters they talked to for their story had received similar threats.

But it’s not just threats. The Afghan SIV Applications Association’s Facebook page posted a photo of an Afghan linguist who had had been decapitated because of his involvement with U.S. Forces.

Start your own petition to help an interpreter who has applied for a SIV.

How many people have been let in to the U.S. on SIVs?
From 2008 through the first half of 2015, the State Department granted more than 12,500 visas for Iraqis and Afghans employed by or on behalf of the U.S. Government, and more than 19,000 visas for their dependents. That’s more than 31,500 visas in total, not only for interpreters, but also for Afghan and Iraqi nationals employed by the U.S. military or embassies.

How many people want SIVs?
According to the State Department, there are more than 13,000 interpreters who have worked for the United States that are being considered for a Special Immigrant Visa.

What does the process for getting a SIV look like?
Many of the stories that have surfaced around the SIV issue discuss the seemingly slow and opaque process for getting a visa approved. While the State Department won’t comment on individual cases, an official told NPR that “the process is complicated and can be slowed by mandatory vetting for national security reasons.”

When AK applied his SIV with a reference from the commander of all U.S. Special Operations in Afghanistan, he was told he would have to wait 90 days. He applied four years ago.

But the rate of application approval has increased over the last two years. A third of the total visas issued from 2008 through June of 2015 were issued in 2014. The State Department seems to be keeping a similar pace in 2015, likely influenced by the increasing awareness around cases like AK’s that have been covered in the media.

What are people doing to help these interpreters?
People are taking a variety of actions to try to get SIVs for their friends and colleagues. Phil Schmidt has engaged the media in AK’s story. Staff Sgt. Robert Ham is making a film about his friend’s struggle to obtain a visa called The Interpreter.

After veteran Matt Zeller launched a successful petition to bring his interpreter Janis – who saved his life in Afghanistan – Zeller founded No One Left Behind, an organization dedicated to assisting Afghan and Iraqi combat interpreters who have received Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) with resettlement in the United States.

The International Refugee Assistance Project at the Urban Justice Center is representing 16 Iraqi and Afghan translators, including AK, who are suing the U.S. government for not delivering the visas, according to NPR.

And there are also people who creating awareness and making change by starting petitions about interpreters who are trying to obtain visas.

Have people had success using petitions to get SIVs?
Mary Ann Rollins started a petition asking that her husband, a native Afghan interpreter who she met while she was deployed in Afghanistan, be issued a SIV. With the support of over 13,000 signatures, Rollins achieved victory. As she wrote in her update, “My son Ryhan is about to meet his dad in person for the first time. We’re so happy to have our family together at last!”

Haley Norris started a petition requesting that Hayat, an Afghan interpreter for her father, a government contractor, be issued a Special Immigrant Visa. After getting over a hundred thousand signatures, Haley was successful. As she wrote in her petition update, “You have saved the life of a brave and honorable man – a true American war hero.”  

Are there any petitions for Afghan interpreters running right now?
U.S. Military Veteran Jeramie Kenyon started a petition for her friend, native Afghan interpreter Sayed. Kenyon served in Afghanistan alongside Sayed, who worked for the US Military for over six years.

Kenyon writes Sayed “has saved countless American lives” and “as a result of his service to Americans, Sayed’s life is in extreme danger. He cannot return to his hometown because Taliban members have sworn to his family they will murder him…And if granted his SIV, Sayed hopes to join the U.S. Army and continue serving alongside the American brothers and sisters he has known for the past six years.”

In 2013, Sayed applied for his Special Immigrant Visa, and yet two years later, he is still waiting to start a new life in America. 

Want to help Kenyon and Sayed? Sign Kenyon’s petition asking that Sayed be granted a Special Immigrant Visa for his heroic service with the United States Military.


What can I do if I know an Afghan or Iraqi interpreter who has applied for an SIV, but hasn’t received it?

Once you’ve launched your petition, share it with your friends, on social media, and get your petition in front of the media.

Written by
Mallory A. Russell
December 15, 2015 7:41 pm