In this 2011 photo, an interpreter in Mali helps the author, right, to advise ethnic Tuareg troops during counterterrorism operations.

In this 2011 photo, an interpreter in Mali helps the author, right, to advise ethnic Tuareg troops during counterterrorism operations. Courtesy Doug Livermore

Fix and Expand the Interpreter Visa Program

The 2006 Special Immigrant Visa program, which helps Iraqi and Afghan interpreters and their families, desperately needs an overhaul and expansion to cover U.S. helpers elsewhere.

Back in 2006, Congress recognized that Iraqis and Afghan nationals who help U.S. forces in their countries deserve swift resettlement in the United States after they wind down their crucial and dangerous efforts. But resettlement has often been anything but swift—certainly not fast enough to help thousands of Afghans left behind when U.S. forces withdrew last year. Nor does the program help those who are helping U.S. forces fight terror groups in other countries. It is time for lawmakers to fix these problems.

Since the Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV, program became law in the 2006 Defense Authorization Act, it has helped roughly 100,000 Iraqi and Afghan interpreters and members of their immediate families become lawful permanent residents of the United States. The law helps these people skip the years-long line for permission to enter our country and obtain the green card that allows them to stay and work here.

But the law, as the Congressional Research Service put it last year, has placed hard limits on the number of such visas and imposed deadlines for processing applications and doing security screening that the U.S. government has often been unable to meet.

Moreover, the budget for the SIV program is debated and appropriated annually, producing a state of financial unpredictability that has prevented the State and Defense Departments from dedicating the necessary resources and personnel to manage it efficiently and effectively.

These conditions create delays that can have deadly consequences for the applicants who await their chance to come to America.

But we should do more than improve the system for our Iraqis and Afghan helpers. We should expand it to help those who are helping us fight al-Qaeda, its splinter organization, the Islamic State in Syria and al-Sham, or ISIS; and other affiliated state and non-state actors across the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.  

On battlefields where the insurgents are nearly indistinguishable from the civilians and the locals speak a complex and multi-dialectic languages, we make life-and-death decisions based on guidance provided by our interpreters. They endure every hardship with us, take all the same risks, and often make the same ultimate sacrifices. 

On my second deployment to Iraq’s “Triangle of Death,” south of Baghdad in 2007, my interpreter Hamid Kaari Hilmi was killed by a piece of shrapnel that struck him in the head. We felt his loss as if he were an American soldier and placed his picture and name on our memorial wall at Fort Drum.  

After I became a Special Forces soldier, I joined foreign internal defense missions against terrorist networks in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, and the Central African Republic. Like our fights in Iraq and Afghanistan, these efforts would have been impossible without these brave interpreters. I have passable French, but few of the Congolese and Central African Army soldiers we trained and advised spoke anything besides local languages. In Mali, most of the ethnic Tuareg troops we were helping to hunt AQ in the Maghreb only spoke Tamashek. 

Today, I am part of the effort to end ISIS’s quest for a physical caliphate in Iraq and Syria. Like our African helpers, locally hired interpreters in Syria are taking deadly risks and supplying crucial aid—and yet neither they nor their families are eligible for SIV visas.  

In the last several months, No One Left Behind—a non-profit organization that advocates for former interpreters and U.S. government employees—has worked closely with several influential members of Congressional to push for a Permanent SIV Program. This new program would delegate authority to the Secretary of State to expand geographic eligibility to any combat area or foreign state in which an interpreter is harmed, persecuted, or threatened with physical harm in connection with their employment by the United States.

 It also would remove the budgetary uncertainty that undermines the current program by establishing a permanent authorization with a multi-year appropriation. According to the Congressional Budget Office, such a permanent program would cost about $2.5 billion to fund over the course of ten years and admit some 30,000 qualified applicants and their eligible family members. By comparison, Congress approved a billion dollars just to provide further funding for the existing SIV program in 2021. And while the CBO score for the proposed Permanent SIV Program is better than that for the existing program, it also underestimates the potential long-term contribution of these interpreters and their families to the American economy. 

It would consolidate and streamline the process by requiring companies and U.S. government agencies to preemptively provide to hired interpreters those documents required for the SIV process, remove redundant steps in the application process, reduce or eliminate many of the unnecessary fees, and allow for virtual interviews for applicants that are unable to reach a U.S. embassy—like many of those currently trapped in Afghanistan.

Now, Congress can introduce and pass standalone legislation for the President to approve that establishes the Permanent SIV Program, having previously introduced similar legislation as a rejected amendment to the 2023 Defense Authorization Act. The ability to attract and retain foreign interpreters is of vital importance to both the State and Defense Departments, so advocacy from their senior leaders for such legislation will be both instrumental and logical. We owe our brave interpreters new and safe homes; a new and better permanent SIV program is a down payment on that debt.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States government or any of its departments or agencies.

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