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Afghans who assisted American missions wait in fear for U.S. to open its doors

February 19, 2014 at 6:24 PM EDT
As the United States military prepares to withdraw from Afghanistan, the lives of thousands of Afghan citizens who worked for Americans are being threatened by insurgents. While legislation greatly increased the number of visas available to those Afghans, the State Department has only approved around 25 percent of the quota. The NewsHour’s P.J. Tobia investigates the holdup.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As the U.S. military prepares to withdraw from Afghanistan, the lives of thousands of Afghan citizens who work for the Americans are being threatened by insurgents. But getting out of the country to safety here in the States has been a long and difficult process.

The NewsHour’s P.J. Tobia has our story.

P.J. TOBIA: For seven years, Kramuddin Ekram has worked dangerous missions for the U.S. military in Afghanistan.

KRAMUDDIN EKRAM: When I get hired, I went to Khost province. I was working with the ADP Afghan police mentors, which was really dangerous.

P.J. TOBIA: His work as a translator brought threats by the same Taliban insurgents he helps U.S. forces hunt down.

KRAMUDDIN EKRAM: I feel danger, every day, every hour. Who knows?  Maybe one day or one hour or one week, they are going to kill me.

P.J. TOBIA: Kramuddin applied for a special immigrant nearly two years ago, paying for documents and medical examinations himself.

KRAMUDDIN EKRAM: Eighteen months that I’m waiting for my visa, I have I have — I have spent a lot of money. Like, I spent $2,000 because of my daughter, myself and my wife.

P.J. TOBIA: The visa would allow him and his family to move to the U.S., if only it would come.

P.J. TOBIA: In 2009, Congress passed the Afghan Allies Protection Act, with strong bipartisan support. The law dramatically increased the number of visas, so Afghans like Kramuddin could come to the United States, but there’s a problem.

Congress expected the State Department, which oversees the program, to approve many more visas in much less time.

Senator Ben Cardin helped write the Afghan visa law.

SEN. BEN CARDIN, D-Md.: They were there as part of our war effort. And now they’re at great risk. We have a responsibility for them to find a safe place for them to live. If they want to live in the United States, they should be able to live here.

P.J. TOBIA: Only around 2,000 of the U.S.’ Afghan employees have received special visas since 2007, the year the precursor for the current program began. That is less than 25 percent of the more than 8,700 visas available by law. Though Congress allowed for 1,500 visas annually, the State Department has never come close to issuing that many.

Jarrett Blanc is a deputy special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the State Department. He blames some of the delays on the applicants themselves.

How big is the entire backlog?

JARRETT BLANC, Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan: It’s not exactly a backlog. It’s a pipeline.

And so the pipeline has about 8,000 people in it. A lot of those people are actually maybe — not quite half them are — control their own timing, essentially. So, they have started the application or perhaps they have gotten through the first step, but they need to finish their own paperwork before we can take the next step with them.

And so that’s not exactly a backlog. It is Afghans who have started the process and at a certain point have either slowed down or decided not to continue.

P.J. TOBIA: Despite the long wait for most of the 8,000 Afghans applying for visas, some do make it to the U.S. Zabitullah Tahery landed in Charlottesville, Virginia, on October 7 with his wife and 18-month-old daughter. He spent seven years as a translator for the U.S. military in Northern Afghanistan.

ZABITULLAH TAHERY: Our main base in Mazar-I-Sharif. The day that I found a message from Kabul U.S. Embassy that my visa is prepared and come to pick it up, I am really very happy. And we know that we are going to have a new life and we going to have — we going to be safe.

P.J. TOBIA: His application process took four years.

ZABITULLAH TAHERY: I used to send them letters, e-mails and let them know what the situation is. But the response was always the same: Just wait.

P.J. TOBIA: Was it frustrating?

ZABITULLAH TAHERY: Of course. If your life is in danger, and you know you are going to get killed by somebody, of course that is frustrating.

KIRK JOHNSON, The List Project: It has been a disastrous program.

P.J. TOBIA: Kirk Johnson worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development in Fallujah, Iraq. When his Iraqi colleagues started getting assassinated, he started an organization to help them flee to the U.S.

KIRK JOHNSON: These are the good guys. And they’re being hunted by the bad guys and we need to protect the good guys. And so five years ago, six years ago, we had this debate as a nation and we said yes, we’re going to open our doors to you. And all of us have turned our backs on the implementation of that promise.

P.J. TOBIA: Why such a low number?  Even with the tremendous number of visas that you have given out at the end of 2013, it’s still not a big chunk of the total visas that Congress allocated. Was’s the holdup? 

JARRETT BLANC: Well, this is a complicated program to set up.

For one thing, it means setting up, actually having immigrant visas issued in Afghanistan, which we didn’t do at all until 2011. And it’s also a complicated set of factors that we have to balance in each of the individual applicant’s cases. And so the important thing is that we have been learning our lessons over time. We have been refining and improving the system. And at this point I think the system is working reasonably well.

P.J. TOBIA: There are still men and women who have been waiting a long time after giving service. They say their lives are threatened every minute of every day, their family’s lives are threatened. If one of those men or women were sitting in this chair, what would you say to him or her?

JARRETT BLANC: Well, obviously, I would say thank you, because every one of us who is involved in this process cares very intensely about making sure that the Afghans who we have worked with, the Iraqis who we have worked with, the people who are now facing a threat get the visas that they deserve. We understand our moral and legal obligation to our colleagues and former colleagues.

P.J. TOBIA: Blanc admits that there were problems with the program, but says that the State Department has added staff to clear bottlenecks in the process.

JARRETT BLANC: We have really improved the system over the course of the last year. And so I believe that we are going to see fewer and fewer of these cases of people who have to wait a very long time to get an answer to their application.

The other thing I would say — and I would say this to our Afghan colleagues and I would say this to the American people — is that we also have obligations, legal obligations, moral obligations, to do a thorough review of each of these applications and make sure that there is no threat posed to the United States by one of the applicants.

P.J. TOBIA: In the last four months of 2013, the State Department issued nearly 500 special immigrant visas to Afghan employees. That’s nearly as many visas as were issued in the last four years combined.

Supporters of visa applicants aren’t impressed.

KIRK JOHNSON: Things are getting noisier in Washington, and, wonders be, when the State Department and Homeland Security start getting embarrassed in the media, they start giving out visas more quickly. It’s kind of crazy how it works, but, if that media attention, if and when it dies out, which it surely will because there are other crises and there are other problems in the world, those numbers will drop back down again.

JARRETT BLANC: It is actually not the case that the hue and cry, as you called it, led to fundamental changes in the system.

What is the case is that we have learned a lot of lessons. We started applying those lessons I think very well about March of last year. And you’re seeing that now in the end numbers of issued visas.

P.J. TOBIA: Johnson and other accuse the State Department of rejecting more and more visa applicants, not because they don’t qualify for the program, but as a means to clear the considerable backlog.

It’s a charge that Jarrett Blanc denies.

JARRETT BLANC: It’s absolutely not true that we use rejections as a way to clear the backlog. It is certainly true that some people who apply for the special immigrant visa program are not eligible for it. So, for example, we have found over the last year or so that about 20 percent of applicants either aren’t or don’t — weren’t originally able to present documentation to prove that they worked for the United States government for a year, or that they weren’t fired for cause, which would indicate that they didn’t provide service, which is another part of the law.

P.J. TOBIA: For Zabitullah Tahery and his family, patience paid off.

ZABITULLAH TAHERY: My daughter, I do love her, and I want her in the future to continue on education in the United States of America. And I’m very happy that she is not in the war in Afghanistan and we were able to get her in a safe place in here in the United States.

P.J. TOBIA: Meanwhile, Kramuddin Ekram worries that the wait could kill him.

KRAMUDDIN EKRAM: Our only hope is a U.S. visa, because we will get killed one day because of working with the U.S. Army.

GWEN IFILL: Online, you can see a visual breakdown of the number of visas granted compared to the number of slots the U.S. had available over the last seven years. Plus, meet more Afghans who are in danger and can’t get visas. That’s on our home page.