Afghan Interpreters Seek Special Immigrant Visas

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in April and has been updated.

The Biden administration announced on July 8 that flights to evacuate some Afghan interpreters who have applied for the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) could begin within the month. The administration also noted that these evacuees will not be flown to US territory, but instead to a third country where they can await the completion of their application process in safety.  The number of evacuees was not specified, but Biden said of them “There is a home for you in the United States, if you so choose, and we will stand with you just as you stood with us,” according to NBC News. Additionally, the US House of Representatives passed a measure on June 29 that would waive the requirement to undergo a medical exam in Afghanistan for SIV applicants, potentially shortening their processing times by a month.

Original story follows:

With the recently announced plans to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021 currently underway, onlookers are beginning to question the fate of Afghan interpreters who assisted United States forces in navigating Pashto and other languages native to the country. In a recent op-ed for The Hill, Greg Fairbank, a director of the non-profit organization No One Left Behind, has called for giving these interpreters Special Immigrant Visas (SIV) in order to prioritize their safety, as the Taliban and the Islamic State (IS) have called for the capital punishment of any interpreter who provided linguistic assistance to the American forces.

Activists have long advocated for SIV privileges for Afghan interpreters who have risked their lives throughout the duration of the war in Afghanistan. In 2014, No One Left Behind, which focuses on advocating for interpreters who have aided the U.S. military, reported that at least 300 interpreters and their family members were killed by the Taliban, IS, or other terrorist groups. Many of them were waiting for visas to immigrate to the United States, which to this day has still not expedited SIV programs for Afghan interpreters in spite of the risks the interpreters take in remaining in their home country.

Throughout the war, United States forces were highly dependent upon native Afghan citizens to work with them as interpreters, due to a shortage of American linguists and interpreters with knowledge of languages spoken widely in Afghanistan, like Pashto and Dari. However, despite their work for the country, Afghan interpreters have struggled to immigrate to the United States in a timely fashion and remain in an extremely dangerous situation. In 2020, the United Kingdom outlined its own plans for relocating Afghan interpreters who helped their troops, expanding resettlement plans to allow an additional 100 interpreters to immigrate to the United Kingdom.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also stalled efforts to process interpreters’ visa applications. In January, the Washington Post reported that, after a complete halt on visa interviews in March 2020, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul would finally resume processing SIV applications for Afghans who worked with U.S. forces, including interpreters. According to the Washington Post, almost 19,000 Afghans’ SIV applications were stuck in processing as of September 2019, a number which is likely to have grown significantly since the pandemic delayed application processing even further.

Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner is a writer from Sacramento. He received his B.A. in linguistics and English from UCLA and is currently working toward an M.A. in applied linguistics at Columbia University. His writing has been published in Language Magazine, Sactown Magazine, and The Takeout.


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