Last June, Armed Services Chairman and re-elected Senator of Arizona John McCain spoke truth on the Senate floor: “People are going to die . . . if we don’t pass this amendment and take them out of harm’s way. Don’t you understand the gravity of that?” He was referring to Afghan interpreters and other U.S. affiliated Afghan nationals who are targeted and threatened by the Taliban for their cooperation with U.S. Armed Forces.
Since its introduction in 2009, the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program has offered a lifeline to thousands of Afghans in this situation, by allowing them and their families to safely resettle to the United States. The recently passed defense spending bill (NDAA 2017) reauthorizes the program for another four years, acknowledging the continued need for trusted allies on the ground in Afghanistan. But by granting only 1,500 additional visas, Congress has turned the program into a lottery of life and death.
The good news is that over 9,000 of our Afghan allies have been safely resettled to the United States through the SIV program and are working, studying, and taking care of their families in peace. However, as of October 2016, about 13,000 more applicants are already in the pipeline and with ongoing U.S. presence in Afghanistan, there are likely to be more. Many of these individuals have been waiting for years for their visa, because the application process is lengthy, inefficient, and prone to errors. The International Refugee Assistance Project, where I serve as Chairman of the Board, knows dozens of cases of eligible applicants that have been erroneously denied or delayed indefinitely. If Congress does not step up to allocate additional visas, these individuals – our allies – will remain in limbo fearing for their lives.
Even after an election season that has seen a more divisive rhetoric on refugees than ever before, the case for protecting our Afghan allies should be bipartisan, self-evident, a no-brainer. These men and women have risked their lives and those of their families to serve the U.S. military and diplomats and, in many cases, save American lives overseas. They did so because the United States promised to bring them to safety, should their work bring them a death sentence: being labeled traitors by the Taliban. Now is the time for us to make good on that promise.
This is not simply an immigration issue; it is a veterans’ issue and a matter of national security. My experience during two tours of duty in Iraq has taught me that our troops, be they in Iraq, Afghanistan or other nations, rely on the trust and support of locals to fulfill their mission. Betraying this trust could have devastating consequences for our soldiers, who are my colleagues and friends. How can we expect honor and loyalty if we, as a country, don’t abide by our own values?
That is why I urge our nation’s leaders to do the right thing and provide sufficient visas for all eligible applicants who served our country. We’d be lucky to have them in our midst. There are few better ambassadors for American values than those we granted protection from violence and extremism. They’ve been our allies, our comrades, and friends – let them be our neighbors, too.