Miracle on Capitol Hill

When I first met Mohammed, I was startled that the bright-eyed, enthusiastic young man before me could have gone through so much and still be standing. His father was kidnapped and murdered by the Taliban. His little brother was kidnapped, and Mohammed had to pay his life savings to ransom him. Then he was forced to flee, leaving his remaining family behind, because his mere presence created too much danger for them. All of this because he had served as a translator for US troops.

Now, Mohammed lives in the United States, the recipient of a Special Immigrant Visa, which Congress created for Afghan and Iraqi interpreters who served alongside our troops overseas. It took him years to procure the visa due to a complicated system, a bureaucratic log jam, and a failure of the United States government. He went by his first name, "Mohammed," not only to keep his last name secret for the protection of his family, but also because a bureaucratic mistake on his U.S. documents gave him the official name "FNU Mohammed." "FNU" standing for "First Name Unknown." It's a dehumanizing mistake, and representative of the problems that have plagued the entire SIV program. But, at least he is here.

Tragically, for over a year, Mohammed's family had been trapped in a war zone where they are among the primary targets because of him. Those of us who have been close to the matter have heard of how they had to flee Afghanistan to Pakistan, constantly in fear that they would be discovered or turned in by neighbors, eager for money from Taliban bounties. None of this was made public, however, even as Mohammed told his story, because their lives were at risk.

But, just last week, Mohammed's family has joined him in the U.S. through a humanitarian visa. This is the most impressive type of miracle, because it was wrought by human hands. The tireless efforts of advocacy groups like the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project and individuals such as Adrian Kinsella who served in Afghanistan with Mohammed, have made this reunion possible. The final push came when Mohammed's story was featured on John Oliver's Last Week Tonight. The approval for Mohammed's family's visas came mere days after the show aired.

However, this narrative once again reveals flaws in the Special Immigrant Visa program. If Mohammed had been Iraqi, instead of Afghani, he would have been allowed to bring all of his immediate family members who were in danger with him to the U.S. But, because of a flaw in the system, this is not the rule for Afghan SIV program. Also, while the individuals who helped Mohammed's family are truly representative of the better angels of our nature, we cannot rely on their heroic intervention, or that of dryly witty British comedians, to solve all of our problems.

What we need now is for Congress to create its own miracle: fixing and extending the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa program before the end of the year.

Part of the solution is for Congress to pass the bipartisan legislation I've introduced, the Afghan Allies Protection Extension Act, which would provide parity in the definition of "family" between the more thoughtful Iraq allowance and the narrower Afghan restriction. If passed, Afghan siblings and parents of an SIV applicant, who can independently demonstrate they're under threat as well, like Mohammed's, would now be eligible to come to the U.S., instead of being left to the tender mercies of the Taliban or Al Qaeda.

We are seeing the results of many in Congress who have pushed the State Department to more aggressively implement this Special Immigration Visa program. The Afghan program went from an embarrassing 32 visas issued for all of 2012 to an average of 400 each month this year. The program is now functioning at a level that almost allows us to keep our promises to our allies, and as a result, the State Department has run out of SIVs. Now, Congress should join me and my colleague, Adam Kinzinger, in calling on the House Appropriations Committee to, like last year, authorize urgently needed Afghan SIVs in the end-of-the-year appropriations package that we will soon have here on the floor.

We have stepped up before, but we need to avoid this Special Immigrant Visa roulette so that these people are not in limbo, or, worse, resigned to the hell inflicted on them by the Taliban in Afghanistan. By fixing and extending the program, we can improve the national security of the U.S., keep our promises to our allies, show our soldiers and veterans that we protect those who protected them and maybe, just maybe, prove to the American people that Congress can still be a force for good and right. We shouldn't have to rely on miracles.