Thousands Of U.S. Military Interpreters Wait For Visas



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NPR follows up on the status of "AK," one of many Afghan and Iraqi interpreters for the U.S. military still waiting for a visa, and why thousands of interpreters struggle with the process.

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That's NPR's Quil Lawrence. And Quil actually joins us now. Quil, you said in your story that there are thousands of Iraqis and Afghans like AK who worked with the U.S. military or with U.S. companies and who want to come to the U.S. but are still stuck in their home countries. What is their situation?

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Well, the Department of State says there are 13,000 of them still at some point in the process. And we should know right here, NPR and other media organizations that worked in Iraq and Afghanistan have also been able to sponsor people who worked alongside Americans to get this special immigrant visa. Veterans are some of the biggest proponents in this country for these people. After all, they're the ones who, on the ground in Iraq or Afghanistan, were the face of this promise to these Afghan or Iraqi interpreters, saying if you risk your life to help us out, you'll end up getting a visa to the United states. The program gets renewed by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, but it's always been a slow and confusing process. It's sort of classic red tape.

MCEVERS: I mean, why? What's the problem? I mean, I understand what red tape means. It just means too much bureaucracy. But what can be so hard about this?

LAWRENCE: One State Department official said that it's just a complicated process, and he challenged me to go look at the forms that people have to fill out. Honestly, I couldn't really get past the website. It's so full of legally required caveats and dates and fees. I can't imagine filling it out if English weren't my first language. There is also a point where, according to leaked diplomatic cables, there was an attempt to slow the process down for fear of there being a brain drain in Afghanistan. Now as we said, the piece that's changed - and the State Department says they've sped it up by 600 percent in 2014 over the previous year.

MCEVERS: What have they done to speed it up?

LAWRENCE: Well, a larger number of the visas, they say, are being approved by the chief of mission. That would be the head of the embassy in Iraq or Afghanistan. But still, the real black hole with these is when someone gets denied on national security grounds, there's really no explanation for that. An applicant can appeal, but these appeals sort of get lost somewhere in the Department of Homeland Security. And it seems all but impossible to find out the reason they're being denied or really to find out anything about their case.

MCEVERS: That's NPR's Quil Lawrence. Quil, thanks so much.

LAWRENCE: Thank you, Kelly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.