Afghans who helped the U.S. military worry they, too, will suffer under Trump's refugee ban

For seven years, Ekram Razeqy worked alongside U.S. forces in some of Afghanistan’s most volatile provinces, surviving roadside bombings and Taliban ambushes as an interpreter for American troops.

Fearing he could be targeted by Taliban sympathizers when he returned to civilian life, he applied for a special visa that allows interpreters who assisted U.S. forces in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to resettle with their families in the United States. In May 2012, he sat for an interview at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and was told to wait up to 12 months for his application to be processed.

Nearly five years later, Razeqy is still waiting for an answer – one he now fears might never come because of President Trump’s executive order shutting down the U.S. refugee program for 120 days and banning all citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. for 90 days.

While Afghanistan is not one of the seven countries on the list, Trump’s efforts to reduce immigration, particularly from Muslim nations he perceives as security threats, have alarmed Razeqy and others who feel the Special Immigrant Visa program will be abolished or curtailed even further.

“I’m really worried about this,” Razeqy, 33, said Sunday by phone from Kabul, where he lives with his wife and two children. “I think it’s really, really bad news for Afghans who are still waiting for the SIV.”

The executive order Trump signed Friday does not mention the SIV, intended for interpreters whose lives may be in danger because of their service to the United States. But the order’s vague, sweeping language prompted mass confusion and protests at U.S. airports this weekend as authorities detained immigrants and visitors with valid visas and lawyers fought to have them released.

The Pentagon said Monday that it was working to ensure that interpreters and others who worked with the U.S. military were exempt from the ban on entry. Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, referred specifically to Iraq, which, unlike Afghanistan, is among the seven countries whose nationals are banned.

But White House spokesman Sean Spicer later pushed back against blanket exemptions.

“We recognize that people have served this country, we should make sure that in those cases they're helped out,” he said. “But that doesn't mean that we just give them a pass.”

An Afghan national traveling on an SIV was detained briefly Friday at San Francisco International Airport while his wife and children were allowed through, said Matt Zeller, an Afghanistan veteran and founder of No One Left Behind, a nonprofit group that helps Afghan and Iraqi combat interpreters resettle in the U.S.

Customs and Border Protection officers held the Afghan man for several hours because they were unclear on which nationalities were subject to the ban, Zeller said.

Hameed Khalid Darweesh, an Iraqi man who worked for U.S. forces for 10 years and obtained an SIV this month, was detained upon arrival Friday at Kennedy Airport in New York because Iraq is one of Trump’s seven “countries of particular concern.”

The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit on behalf of Darweesh and another Iraqi detainee, winning a judgment late Saturday that blocked the deportation of visa holders.

Trump’s order would slash the number of refugees allowed into the United States in 2017 to a maximum of 50,000 – fewer than half the number allowed last year. That could significantly restrict approvals under the SIV program, which has a backlog of 13,000 applicants in Afghanistan and only 1,500 more visas available over the next four years under the latest congressional authorization.

The visa program also seems in trouble because Trump’s order will prohibit immigration from countries that fail to provide adequate information to the U.S. about visa applicants. Record-keeping in Afghanistan has long been scant; many SIV applicants, for example, never obtained birth certificates.  

Trump’s nominee for attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions, is one of the harshest critics of the visa program and has argued that it should be killed.

“We’re profoundly concerned about what this means for U.S. national security,” Zeller said. “We’re already starting to see previous translators express dismay at this order online and question why they ever signed up to work with us, saying they don’t trust Americans.

“If that’s the prevailing narrative, how are we ever going to find allies in future conflicts or humanitarian situations around the world if we don’t keep our word to leave no one behind?”

The visa program has resettled more than 52,000 Afghan and Iraqi interpreters and family members in the United States since 2007. The program in Afghanistan was long criticized for bureaucratic delays until the State Department significantly sped up processing of the applications in 2014.

Proponents of the program say SIV recipients have put their lives on the line to assist U.S. personnel. They are among the most thoroughly vetted of visa applicants, undergoing exhaustive background checks by U.S. military and intelligence agencies that often last years – not to mention the extensive screening that took place before they were hired as interpreters in the first place.

As the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan has dwindled to about 8,000, jobs for interpreters have dried up. At the same time, Taliban insurgents, who have said they will target anyone who collaborated with foreign troops, have strengthened their grip on large parts of northern and southern Afghanistan.

Many SIV applicants live in fear in Afghan cities while others have given up waiting and joined the dangerous migrant trail to Europe.

Razeqy, who is jobless, said he checks the State Department website sometimes multiple times a day for updates on his status. He and his wife spent more than $1,000 collecting the required documents, letters of recommendation and medical reports for themselves and their two children.

“I send a lot of emails to the U.S. Embassy,” Razeqy said. “I told them: You don’t know my situation. Everyone knows I was an interpreter. I can’t travel easily. I can’t work.”

“My message to President Trump is that I worked seven years faithfully for Americans, shoulder to shoulder,” Razeqy said. “And it’s not just me but there are thousands of us. It’s not fair to leave us behind.”

Other former interpreters have been stymied by the visa application process. Alireza Rezai, 26, said he couldn’t contact his former U.S. military mentors for recommendation letters because he forgot his Facebook password and was locked out of his account. Emails he sent went unreturned.

Six years ago, Rezai was riding at the front of a U.S. Army convoy in western Afghanistan when his truck struck a roadside bomb. The soldiers and Rezai escaped without severe injuries, and the platoon leader praised the young interpreter for remaining “cool under pressure.”

“His enthusiasm for the job is unwavering, and his professionalism is without equal,” Lt. David S. Savanuck wrote in a recommendation letter Rezai collected.

“I don’t think Trump understands that for most of the Afghan guys who worked with the U.S., their lives are in danger,” Rezai said by phone from Herat, in western Afghanistan.

“Every day the security is getting worse here. So if they end this [SIV] process, I am sure that most of the guys who worked with the U.S. Army will be at risk.”

shashank.bengali@latimes.com

Times staff writer W.J. Hennigan in Washington contributed to this report.

Follow @SBengali on Twitter for more news from South Asia

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