TWIN FALLS | Time might be running out for thousands of Afghans who risked their lives in the U.S.-led War on Terror.
As American forces continue to pull out of Afghanistan, some 5,000 Afghan translators under Taliban threat are competing for a few thousand Special Immigration Visas (SIVs), the New York Times reported in March.
On Aug. 8, President Barack Obama signed the Emergency Afghan Allies Extension Act of 2014, which authorized another 1,000 visas for Afghan principal applicants.
If the special visa program expires at the end of December, it will be nearly impossible for them to come to America through other visas, a State Department official told the Times-News.
“Although the deadline to apply... is December 31, 2014, the current law provides that no SIVs may be issued under this program after that date,” says a State Department online fact sheet. “We welcome action by Congress to extend this program.”
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According to the fact sheet, processing time can vary depending on a number of factors. “The current average processing time for an SIV in Afghanistan is approximately 13 months.”
But most have taken much longer, said Ron Black, outgoing director of the College of Southern Idaho’s refugee program. “Up to five years.”
Many, including U.S. Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, believe the U.S. government has an urgent moral obligation to resettle to safety Afghans who are imperiled due to their affiliation with America.
“America owes these people a debt of gratitude,” said Risch in an email to the Times-News. “As I have stated before, we are trying to find solutions to this problem.”
The problem, said Lindsey Sharp, associate director of resettlement for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, is that the visa process has been dogged by bureaucracy, something Risch said he hopes to remedy.
The SIV program was due to expire Sept. 31, but the State Department extended the application process through Dec. 31.
That deadline is fast approaching. But Black said Thursday he has to believe the deadline will be extended.
Suzanne Wrasse, spokeswoman for Risch, said the senator “remains hopeful that the many complications can be worked out before the end of the year, or very quickly thereafter.” She said staff members were working on the problem, but did not offer specifics of what they have or will be doing.
Fathe Noori, who worked for four years as a translator for American and coalition forces in Afghanistan, immigrated with his wife and son to Twin Falls in early April after receiving death threats from the Taliban.
As a 10-year-old boy, Noori lived in fear, forced to watch the Taliban behead and stone villagers of his native city, Herat.
After graduating from high school, Noori joined the Afghan National Army.
“I was a young guy and I told my father, ‘I have to go,’” he previously told the Times-News.
Five years later, Noori left the Afghan Army to become an interpreter for the Americans. Translators bridged the cultural gap between America and the Middle East, a critical task for America to help stabilize the country so its forces could fight the Taliban independently.
Many soldiers, such as Major Jeff Marsteller, Brigade Logistics Support Team Chief for the 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, say they owe their lives to interpreters who worked with them.
The biggest difficulty in issuing a visa is establishing the applicant’s identity, Black said. “These SIV applicants use assumed names for their own safety.”
Many use the name “FNU” -- which stands for “first name unknown,” he said. The refugees “need identification, and nothing matches.
“Once they get a visa, they must leave immediately,” Black said. “But they still need an exit permit, and that can be cancelled at the last minute. So the process can drag on and on.”
Public opinion has spurred some improvements in the system, said the New York Times.
Organizations such as “The List Project,” a group dedicated to bringing Afghani and Iraqi translators to safety in the U.S., have kept the subject alive.
Lt. Col. Andrew Schmidt, who served with the West Virginia Air National Guard in Afghanistan, said he has worked tirelessly since 2010 to bring his translators to America.
“They are in extreme danger and are just sitting in the system,” Schmidt said. “These guys kept me alive. I’m not at all afraid of bringing those guys over here to make this a better place, because I know they will.”