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Left behind: Without security, without citizenship, interpreters are exposed to death squads

Apr. 21, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Hamidullah, then an interpreter with 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, smiles for a photo with Marine Sgt. Joshua Desforges. Desforges was killed in combat in 2010.
Hamidullah, then an interpreter with 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, smiles for a photo with Marine Sgt. Joshua Desforges. Desforges was killed in combat in 2010. ()
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Marine veteran Owen West stands in front of his house with Alex, his Iraqi interpreter, who got his visa and is now training to become an Army Ranger. (Courtesy of Owen West)

Scott Maislin spent nine years in some of the Corps' most demanding combat jobs, deploying twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan as an infantry machine gunner before returning to Afghanistan in 2012 as a counterintelligence specialist with Marine Corps Fo

Scott Maislin spent nine years in some of the Corps' most demanding combat jobs, deploying twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan as an infantry machine gunner before returning to Afghanistan in 2012 as a counterintelligence specialist with Marine Corps Fo

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Scott Maislin spent nine years in some of the Corps’ most demanding combat jobs, deploying twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan as an infantry machine gunner before returning to Afghanistan in 2012 as a counterintelligence specialist with Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command. He was capable against the enemy in combat, but, faced with his own country’s bureaucracy, he now feels helpless to save a friend.

Maislin, who left the Corps as a staff sergeant in 2013, has been working for over a year to help Don, an Afghan interpreter who has been mired in the visa process for much longer than that, to reach safety in the U.S. as the war in Afghanistan draws to a close. Maislin and Don risked death together in a combat zone; they worked hard to accomplish the same mission. Then Maislin and his unit returned to the U.S.; Don stayed behind and waited.

Don, a nickname he chose, but whose real name is Muhamed, is fluent in at least four languages, and has a wife and small child. In his correspondence, Maislin said Don shares fears about the danger his family faces as they wait in Kabul for visa approval; like many Afghan interpreters and linguists, he’s worried he’s a marked man for having helped the U.S. military. Meanwhile, Maislin is making calls to congressional offices in an attempt to get Don’s paperwork moving.

“He and I went through the same experiences and hardships,” Maislin said. “If there’s a way I could make this happen in my ability to pay for it, I would do it. If I could fly to Afghanistan and get this guy, I would do it.”

Like thousands of others who have worked alongside U.S. troops, Don is staking his hopes on a Special Immigrant Visa, a specially designed pathway to U.S. residency for a limited number of Iraq and Afghanistan citizens who had assisted U.S. interests and were able to clear an extensive series of background checks and interviews.

However, the opacity of the visa-issuing process and the large number of U.S. agencies involved in approving each visa means that many applications remain trapped in limbo for years—time that some fear they may not have to spare as American forces depart and they become increasingly vulnerable to retaliation from al-Qaida or the Taliban.

And some Marines who have invested time and resources to sponsor an interpreter through the visa process fear they won’t be able to live up to the Corps’ fundamental ethos: Never leave a man behind.

A complex process

The challenges of securing an SIV differ for residents of Iraq and Afghanistan. The Iraqi SIV process was created first in 2008 by Congress, which authorized 25,000 visas for Iraqi applicants who met the criteria and passed the security checks, allotted at the rate of 5,000 visas each fiscal year.

However, the program allotted only a fraction of the available visas within its first five years, distributing about 5,500 between fiscal 2008 and 2012 while more than 1,000 Iraqi applicants reportedly remained backlogged in the visa pipeline. The program was set to expire in September 2013, but, amid political pressure, Congress convened despite a government shutdown and passed a program extension that enabled Iraqi applicants to claim an additional 2,500 visas after 2014, with no expiration date.

From January to March of this year, an additional 828 visas were issued, according to State Department statistics, leaving nearly 1,700 remaining.

In Afghanistan, the SIV program has been even more embattled. Congress initially approved an SIV program of 8,750 available visas for qualifying Afghans in 2009, but the program had issued no visas by 2011. A 2010 cable from former Ambassador Karl Eikenberry to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton revealed one likely cause of the delay: Eikenberry’s concerns that the program would provide incentive for Afghans assisting the U.S. mission to abandon their jobs in favor of U.S. residency.

The program did eventually begin issuing visas, but still faces a looming deadline: Applications for 3,000 remaining allotted Afghan SIVs must be submitted by Sept. 30 of this year, and must be issued in the following 12 months.

According to State Department officials, more than 7,000 Afghans have now received visas through the program, more than 3,000 of those since October 2013. Officials said that more than 15,500 Iraqi SIVs had been issued since 2008, including those issued to family members.

The backlog of applicants isn’t as easy to determine. The State Department does not release the number of applications in the system, but private organizations that assist SIV applicants say there may be thousands of Iraqis and Afghans stuck in the pipeline.

Lives threatened

While the process remains fraught with delays, the danger interpreters and linguists face is real. At the end of 2013, an Afghan user posted a jarring image to the Facebook page of the Afghan SIV Applications Association: the decapitated body of a man lying prostrate in the dirt in a pool of his own blood, his lifeless head placed on the small of his back and positioned to face the camera. The photo’s caption identified the nameless man as an Afghan linguist. In the reporting of this story, Marine Corps Times received phone calls and emails from more than 50 self-identified interpreters from Iraq and Afghanistan, many of whom expressed fear for their lives.

One interpreter, Aslam, who worked with Marines in Helmand province, said he had received threatening phone calls and letters from insurgents as he waited for his visa.

“I am very desperate to kiss my new home America’s soil in the airport,” he wrote.

Another, Abdul, who worked for the reserve unit 24th Marines in 2010, said via phone that, even though he was no longer working with U.S. troops, he felt he couldn’t return home. It’s too dangerous.

“I am afraid all the time,” he said.

Hamidullah, who has been waiting on a visa for three years and continues to work with a Marine lieutenant at the Afghan National Army’s Logistics Command in Kabul, said he worries for his life, and he felt the U.S. owed him a smoother path to safety in return for his years of service. He chose to work for U.S. troops in part, he said, because of the promise of the SIV process.

“Help those interpreters who helped their mission in Afghanistan,” he said. “We see in our recommendation from the mentors, they say the mission would not be successful without our help. We took the risk, we helped them. Now it’s time that they helped us.”

Working to help

Those who assist SIV applicants say the drawdown of combat in Afghanistan and increased instability in Iraq has intensified the fears of those stuck in limbo.

“They’re scared s---less,” said Ronald Payne, an Army staff sergeant who founded the Allied Freedom Project, in his capacity as a private citizen, to help those seeking SIVs, and other international refugees. Payne said the caseload at his grassroots organization, approximately 4,000 cases now, is expanding at the rate of 25-40 per day as U.S. bases close in Afghanistan. Despite the urgency, he said, the time frame for issuing SIVs has gotten more protracted, expanding from about six to nine months in 2008 to between two to three years today.

These delays continue despite political goodwill for the program in Congress and a steady stream of advocacy. Last September, Marine Medal of Honor recipient Dakota Meyer and respected military author Bing West collaborated on a Washington Post op-ed urging lawmakers to fix the delays to help people like Fazel, Meyer’s interpreter who came to the U.S. in 2013 after a four-star general intervened to expedite his application. The mystifying delays that persist, Payne said, are the result of too many agencies struggling to work together without a streamlined process.

“It’s easier for an Iranian to come into the U.S. than an SIV with a few years of experience,” Payne said. “The Department of Homeland Security, Department of State and Department of Justice, they’re like three hands on one arm. And they just can’t shake hands.”

Katie Reisner, the national policy director for the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, which offers pro bono legal help to Iraqi and Afghan SIV applicants in addition to other refugees, said about half the organization’s caseload, which averages 300 cases, consists of Afghan SIV-seekers.

“The bases are closing, and each time a base closes, that means that Afghans who had previously been safe, they have to start coming for physical security,” she said. “They panic because they realize their families are now in danger. Many times our clients have left so their families are not subjected to danger.”

In her work, Reisner communicates with many U.S. troops and veterans who assist SIV applicants as sponsors and often work to secure housing arrangements, employment and other urgent needs when the interpreter arrives in the U.S. While interpreters who assisted Marines make up only a small percentage of the pool of applicants — Payne said about 20 percent of his cases were Marine Corps-related — Reisner said she perceived a special bond between the Marines she worked with and the linguists they helped.

“The Marines are amazing,” she said. “These Marines and their intepreters maintain close relationships.”

No man left behind

Seth Moulton, a former Marine infantry captain who deployed four times to Iraq and served as a special assistant to Gen. David Petraeus during the troop surge, said assisting the men who fought at your side was a crucial part of the Marine identity.

“That’s something that’s fundamental to being a Marine,” he said. “You don’t leave a Marine behind. For anyone who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan, you know how critical [interpreters] are. They’re your brothers.”

Moulton has assisted in bringing several intepreters to the U.S., including his friend Mohamed, who lived at Moulton’s parents’ house for a period of time after arriving in the U.S., and now works as an Arabic teacher for the prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. Now running as a Democrat for Congress in Massachusetts’ 6th district, Moulton said he would not have been able to assist Mohamed and others without his connection to a law firm in Boston, which helped him push the paperwork through the pipeline.

The majority of Marine SIV sponsors who spoke with Marine Corps Times were officers who were able to dedicate financial resources and sometimes personal clout to see SIV applicants safely through the system.

“It shouldn’t require someone with these kind of connections to get it done,” Moulton said. “It shouldn’t be incumbent on Marines to find outside lawyers to do this. If a lance corporal knows an interpreter who belongs here, he shouldn’t have to find some high-powered connection to a law firm to make it happen.”

State Department officials say the SIV process is beginning to improve, thanks to streamlined procedures and increased resources. In a letter to USA Today last November, Under Secretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy said 2013 was a landmark year, with nearly 1,600 visas issued to Afghans and their family members, the most since the program began.

“We know that every SIV issued represents an opportunity to begin a new life here in the United States, and we will continue our efforts to improve the multi-agency process,” he wrote. “At the same time, we must continue to follow procedures that are vital to our security.”

A role for the DoD

On the ground, some argue there’s more the Defense Department can do as well to ensure the success of interpreters seeking SIVs.

Capt. Rucker Hunt Culpepper, a Marine infantry officer now on terminal leave, said many linguists in Afghanistan are still working on forward operating bases where they may not be given regular access to the internet. Staying on top of a visa application, he said, can be difficult.

“I think that if DoD, Marine Corps, Army leadership came down with a very firm stance in favor of assisting those interpreters who deserve it, that could go some way to influencing the units who are there on FOBs,” he said.

It’s personal for Culpepper, who has been helping his Afghan interpreter, Amin, to navigate the visa system for more than a year, submitting redundant forms into a system that is opaque and often frustratingly uncommunicative. Culpepper shared a March email exchange between an interpreter he has sponsored and the U.S. embassy in Kabul as an example of the real problems that continue, despite optimism from State Department officials.

An articulate four-paragraph email from the interpreter inquires why his application was labeled refused, refers to a letter of endorsement from Culpepper and asks whether his application status will change, having submitted a U.S. address, which was previously missing from his application. The email took considerable time to draft for the interpreter and for the lawyers from IRAP who helped him, Culpepper said.

The embassy sent a one-sentence response.

“Dear Applicant: Thank you for your email,” it reads. “Your [sic] need to provide us with U.S address. And please check the status of your case online.”

Bringing them home

Once interpreters do make it to the U.S., however, success stories abound. Of the roughly 1,500 Iraqis and Afghans Payne’s organization has assisted in bringing to the states over the past seven years, only seven have been arrested, he said. In the cases Payne has worked with, he said roughly 80 percent of SIV recipients are gainfully employed within 90 days, and about 15 percent opt to join the U.S. military.

One such story belongs to Alex, who served as an interpreter for Owen West, a veteran Marine infantry major who, like his father Bing West, has authored popular military non-fiction, and several novels as well.

West met Alex in Iraq in 2006 and was immediately impressed by his intelligence, ability to learn quickly, and longing for freedom. He also experienced loss and sacrifice: Because Alex had served with Marines, insurgents murdered his brother in 2007. West embarked on the lengthy SIV process with Alex following his deployment.

“The process was like standing in a 2,000-mile DMV line,” he said. “In Alex’s case, there was the typical endless paperwork that we were all used to in the military. But what I did not expect was the bribery he encountered on his end, and the call to inaction on our end by the State Department.”

Alex did eventually make it to the U.S., living with West and his family and eventually finding work as a prison guard. He’s now training to become an Army ranger. West said Alex deserved to come to the U.S., having qualities that made him an excellent candidate for U.S. citizenship. But bringing him back safely, he said, was also an obligation.

“The idea that we wouldn’t pave that path for the folks who served beside us,” he said, “was inconceivable to Marines.”

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