The situation on Texas’ southern border is not the only refugee crisis facing the United States. Thousands of Afghan interpreters who need to get out before the Taliban kills them for collaborating with U.S. troops are stuck over there because the State Department has run out of visas. Make no mistake, this is a test of our national character: These men risked their lives to help us bring democracy to Afghanistan, but they might die because our government doesn’t work.
About 6,000 interpreters need to come here, and we’ve only got 3,000 slots left. We can either start digging 3,000 graves in Afghanistan, or we can remember that we’re the country that put a dozen men on the moon. We can do big things, and this is just paperwork. This should not be that hard.
As fun as it may be to blame feckless diplomats working for Hillary Clinton and now John Kerry, the number of visas the State Department is allowed to hand out is limited under the Special Immigrant Visa program set to expire in September. That means the only solution lies in the greatest deliberative body in this history of the world, the United States Congress.
Yes, I know. This is the same congress that only gets a 7 percent confidence rating from Americans, which according to Gallup, is the worst rating recorded for any institution. Ever. A 2013 poll found that cockroaches, head lice, colonoscopies, and—ugh—political pundits were more popular than congress, which is on track to pass the fewest non-ceremonial bills. Ever. So yes, at this point I’m willing to engage in a little empty flattery to move this along.
At least—and here is the silver lining on the big honking rain cloud—there is a plan. When congress passes the defense budget, the Afghan visa program will be back up and running, but the visas will run out before then. This is where the plan gets dicey, because Democrats and Republicans will have to work together quickly to get something done.
There are leaders on this issue. Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon) and Adam Kinzinger (R-Illinois) are working with Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-New Hampshire) and John McCain (R-Arizona) to pass a stopgap bill to provide 1,000 more visas until the defense budget kicks in, but the August recess is coming up, and congress is acting like a bunch of kids aching to be let out on vacation.
It’s going to be hard to get congress to focus on this issue. The danger facing the Afghans is real, and the deadline is near, but this problem has never risen to crisis-of-the-week status. No one in congress is going to lose re-election if they let the Taliban hunt the translators down and chop their heads off. But that attitude doesn’t make sense to anyone who served in Afghanistan.
“If they were American citizens, we’d spare no expense protecting them and helping them flee to the safety of U.S. soil. But, because they were born Afghan or Iraqi, they’re somehow subject to a lower standard of treatment. The truth is, these translators did a lot more than most Americans to protect and defend our country. They have earned their place in America,” wrote Army Reserve Capt. Matt Zeller and his former translator Janis Shinwari in a joint oped for CNN.com.
We can help the interpreters once they get here. Zeller and Shinwari, featured recently on HBO’s VICE, started No One Left Behind to set up interpreters with furnished apartments, hook up the utilities, and help them find jobs. It’s a great organization that could use your help to make good on a promise our country is having a hard time keeping.
But all the money in the world won’t make a difference for Zeller and Shinwari if congress doesn’t extend the Special Immigrant Visa program. It would be lazy for us assume congress will fail. There’s nothing stopping you from calling or emailing your member of congress and demanding they keep America’s promise to these interpreters.
These interpreters risked their lives for us. You can afford a few minutes to return the favor. You could do that right now, in fact.
© Copyright 2014 Jason Stanford, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.
Jason Stanford is a regular contributor to the Austin American-Statesman, a Democratic consultant and a Truman National Security Project partner. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @JasStanford.This column has been edited by the author.