Promisingly, last Wednesday, Congress included provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act to reauthorize the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program for four more years. The SIV program to protect America’s Afghan wartime allies was set to expire by the end of December.
At a time when anti-immigrant rhetoric is running high and President-elect Donald Trump has consistently politicized immigration policy, the U.S. cannot afford to sidestep its commitment to wartime Afghan allies. Despite the reauthorization, the number of additional SIVs approved remains woefully short of the need.
The Afghan Allies Protection Act of 2009 established the Afghan SIV program to help those who helped the United States in Afghanistan. The program has allowed 9,200 Afghans and 17,000 of their dependents to seek refuge in America. According to the State Department, more than 70 percent of the SIVs were for Afghan translators.
The risks these translators take to support U.S. personnel are immense. In 2014 the International Refugee Assistance Project estimated that an Afghan interpreter was killed every 36 hours. Afghan allies helped U.S. troops return home safely; we owe it to them to honor our promise to ensure their comrades’ safety, as well.
An additional 1,500 SIVs were included in the new legislation, but there is an application backlog of nearly 10,000 Afghan interpreters and allies in need of protection because of their service to the U.S. military. While it is encouraging that Congress has acted to ensure that the promise is kept for some Afghan allies, this step is embarrassingly insufficient; thousands will be left behind. These are Afghans who put their lives and families at risk for U.S. troops and will face grave risks of retaliation and persecution. More SIVs should have been allocated and a plan set forth for future increases while the U.S. still has boots on the ground in Afghanistan.
Currently, 8,400 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan. It will be up to the next administration to determine if and when that number will diminish. To the extent that U.S. troops are in Afghanistan, the U.S. needs to make it clear to our Afghan interpreters that we value their service and sacrifice and have commitments in place to allow for refuge in our country. The safety of U.S. troops and diplomats as well as the success of the mission relies heavily on Afghan allies who gather crucial information in support of U.S. national interests.
On the campaign trail, Trump pushed a proposal to ban all Muslim immigration and extreme-vet those entering the country from terror-prone states. Since the election, the president-elect has even alluded to the idea of a Muslim registry. Whether Trump realizes it or not, our troops’ Afghan interpreters are part of this population. This rhetoric, coupled with the low number of Afghan SIVs allocated, plays directly into the terror narrative that the U.S. is unwelcoming to Muslims. Any future action by the Trump administration to prevent Afghan interpreters from seeking safe haven in the U.S. is dangerous to our allies, tarnishes the credibility of the U.S., and is a threat to national security.
Time will run out for Afghan interpreters left behind as the additional SIV visas run out. Until hostilities in Afghanistan end, it is time to call on Congress and the incoming administration to uphold America’s moral obligations to protect Afghan interpreters and their families. With the Trump administration being filled with traditional hard-line anti-immigrant policymakers, it is imperative that major congressional support for the SIV program continues in the next four years.
Let’s not let history repeat itself and leave our allies behind. Afghan allies should be welcomed as the heroic war veterans they are.
Kristina Doan, of Chanhassen, is a student at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.