Troubled Visa Program for Afghan Interpreters May Do 'More Harm Than Good,' Study Finds

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An interpreter rests near a wall in Afghanistan.
An interpreter rests near a wall in Ahmaday, Ghazni province, Afghanistan, July 7, 2012. (U.S. Army/Spc. Andrew Baker)

The troubled visa program intended to help Afghans and Iraqis who aided U.S. forces by serving as translators or in other civilian jobs is still failing them, a new study found -- and may actually "be doing more harm than good."

The U.S. government's inability to effectively run the Special Immigrant Visa program and follow through on the promises it made to many workers has badly damaged its reputation in Afghanistan, according to the report.

More than 18,000 Afghan applicants, along with more than 45,000 of their immediate family members, had received U.S. visas as of 2020, according to the report, "The Costs of Working with Americans in Afghanistan: The United States' Broken Special Immigrant Visa Process."

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But serious problems with the visa program's application process and bureaucratic red tape have left another 18,800 applicants stuck in a backlog, the report said -- and the lives of thousands of those applicants are still at risk.

The report, released Monday, was produced as part of the Costs of War project at Brown University's Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. Researchers interviewed more than 150 visa applicants and recipients since 2016, and reviewed other studies on the program.

The visa program is "well-intentioned" and benefits those who can successfully navigate the process, the report said. But the way it is set up puts applicants' lives at risk and "leaves them vulnerable to exploitation before, during and after the process," it added.

As applicants wait in Kabul, desperate for a way to speed up the process, they risk being taken advantage of by alleged "travel agents" or other brokers who promise they will help, the report found. In some cases, those brokers offer to sell forged threatening letters, purportedly from the Taliban, to help them prove they are in danger; they can charge applicants hundreds of U.S. dollars for help.

Applicants can also be targeted by criminal groups who think they are wealthy, or political groups because they worked with Americans or are viewed as having a weak commitment to Islam, the report said.

The U.S. lacks a coherent, effective strategy to support the local workers who put their lives on the line to help Americans, the report said. That, combined with America's failure to put the program in place as it was originally envisioned, leaves many applicants stranded in Afghanistan or elsewhere, in danger of being attacked by the Taliban or other criminal groups, and at risk of exploitation, researchers concluded.

But even those who do obtain a visa are often disappointed by the lack of support they find once they make it to the United States and resettle, the report found. The program needs to do much more to prepare visa recipients and their families for the challenges they will face in the U.S., such as finding jobs, and support them after they arrive, it added.

The U.S. set up the Special Immigrant Visa program in 2008 to help Iraqi translators who worked for the U.S. military during the war there. A parallel program in Afghanistan soon followed, first to help Afghans who served as translators, and then other civilians who did other jobs for the U.S. for at least two years.

With many Afghans who worked for or otherwise supported Americans facing "life or death" threats from insurgent or criminal groups, making them not even safe in their own homes, such a program is vital, the report said.

And as the U.S. weighs whether to withdraw its remaining troops -- estimated to number roughly 3,500 -- from Afghanistan as part of a negotiated peace process with the Taliban, Afghans facing a fractured and stalled visa process could face even more danger this year, the report said.

But the visa program is slow and inefficient and typically takes more than two years to process applications, it found. From the start, the program struggled to keep up with the pace of applications, and the State Department has been slow to process them.

Staffing problems at the State Department regularly hamper the special visa process for Afghans. A State inspector general report last year found that as the number of applications increased since 2016, staffing levels at State offices that process them remained unchanged and were not enough to cut the backlog. State's IG said that officials in the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa Unit estimate they would need at least 50 more staff members to fix the backlog and issue visas within nine months.

As of 2019, the Costs of War report said, State had just one analyst running security checks for the entire 18,000-applicant backlog. And between 2017 and 2020, it said, the role of senior coordinator to oversee the whole process remained vacant.

Several computer systems needed during the interagency and security check processes also can't talk to each other, further slowing down processing at all stages.

These delays can be fatal. The report said that at least hundreds of Afghans who were awaiting visas have already been killed for their work with Americans, and the lives of thousands more are at risk.

The visa program is viewed by many in Afghanistan as "largely ineffective," the report found. Afghans who were interviewed saw the program's shortcomings as evidence of America's lack of commitment to those who had helped them -- at best.

At worst, the interviews found, Afghans saw the failings of the visa process as evidence of corruption. Often, the report said, paying an agent for help was the only way for an Afghan to get a visa.

The U.S.' inability to promptly help Afghans who worked with the military find new homes is markedly different from the situation at the end of the Vietnam War, according to the report. Then, more than 100,000 Vietnamese who had worked with or otherwise allied with the U.S. government were flown to Guam, and then usually granted permission to immigrate to the United States.

But in Afghanistan, the U.S. government made no similar efforts to protect friendly Afghans. Several applicants who came from rural areas were forced to move to Kabul to wait for interviews and medical examinations, at considerable expense and increased risk.

Afghan applicants -- both those who were successful and unsuccessful -- told interviewers that the bureaucratic procedures and paperwork are confusing, and getting the right documents proves difficult. In many cases, Afghans have had a hard time getting a letter of recommendation from their U.S. employer, since those supervisors turn over quickly and can be hard to get in touch with once they are no longer in Afghanistan.

Some applicants have a hard time proving they are in danger, the report said. Those who receive a threatening "Night Letter" from the Taliban often have the most success. But other applicants said their threats came verbally, to family members from Taliban-connected neighbors, or were ambiguous.

And with the process proving so slow, confusing, and expensive, the report said, Afghan applicants found themselves unable to make decisions about the future, such as whether to sell land or a home.

President Joe Biden in February issued an executive order calling for a review of the Afghan and Iraqi visa programs. But, the report said, while the review is a good start, it must take a closer look at the real, on-the-ground problems Afghans face with the program and the costs they suffer or it will likely result only in "bureaucratic tinkering" that doesn't truly fix things.

The report recommended that the U.S. rethink how the program defines threats applicants face, and the service they provided, and how applicants can prove each. And the program needs to do a better job differentiating between applicants who face a serious threat and those who are in lesser danger, the report said.

It also suggested temporarily moving those applicants who are in the most danger to another, more secure country, as happened after Vietnam.

And it recommended that the U.S. government create a database of contractors in conflict zones to help process applicants after future conflicts. This would allow applicants to quickly prove they had worked for the United States, and more easily contact former employers, the report said.

-- Stephen Losey can be reached at stephen.losey@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StephenLosey.

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