‘Keep our word': Group seeks more visas for Afghans who helped U.S.

“If they get caught by the Taliban, they will be tortured by the Taliban and they will kill them. They are in a very critical situation right now, and the only hope they have is to come to the United States"

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It’s been two years since the United States exited Afghanistan and the Taliban took over.

Afghans who worked for the U.S. government or those who served in roles such as interpreters for the military were promised they could apply for special visas and come to the U.S. through the State Department’s Special Immigrant Visa program for Afghans.

Ever since the U.S. withdrawal, the number of applications has grown and there are renewed efforts in Congress to expand the number of visas available.

The Arlington, Virginia, organization No One Left Behind is pushing to speed up the application process and increase the number of available visas. The group was co-founded by Janis Shinwari, who served the U.S. military as an interpreter and is credited with saving the lives of American service members.

“We were the eyes and ears of Afghanistan,” Shinwari, said. “If they want people like me who served this country and saved the lives of U.S. soldiers, they deserve to be here. We have to keep our word. We have to keep our promise.”

In 2013, after years of waiting, Shinwari received his special immigrant visa, or SIV.

Once firmly settled in Northern Virginia with his family, Shinwari’s organization worked to make sure other interpreters, government workers and their families could follow in his footsteps.

They helped Afghan citizens navigate the system and offered support including rental assistance.

The situation is getting more dangerous for those who were left behind and can’t get out of the country now that the Taliban is in charge, Shinwari said.

“If they get caught by the Taliban, they will be tortured by the Taliban and they will kill them. They are in a very critical situation right now, and the only hope they have is to come to the United States,” he said.

A look at the Special Immigrant Visa numbers

As of March 2023, the Afghan SIV program had about 152,000 applicants. The same State Department report showed just over 15,000 visas remaining.   

“Historically, we have added 4,000 at a time. That’s just not meeting the need, so 20,000 — we think that’s a good start, “ said Andy Sullivan of No One Left Behind,

In July, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen added language to the State Department’s appropriation bill to add 20,000 more visas and extend the program through 2029. But that bill remains in limbo.

“It went through on a strong bipartisan vote, so we hope that it will go through the Senate floor, since it came out of committee so strongly. Hopefully, the House will be willing to negotiate with us,” Shaheen said.

A State Department spokesperson said in a statement: “… We have undertaken substantial efforts to improve the Afghan Special Immigrant visa program to streamline the application and adjudication processes, while safeguarding our national security.”

The spokesperson said that according to the quarterly report, “approximately 69,000 principal applicants are undergoing Chief of Mission review. Historically, about 50 percent of applications reviewed at the COM stage do not qualify for the SIV program."

For those who make it through the long process, No One Left Behind says it will continue to help Afghan families who come to the U.S. And just maybe, they will become American citizens as Shinwari did in 2020.

A job fair was held to help refugees from Afghanistan looking for better jobs and better pay. News4's Derrick Ward met some of those who attended the fair and asked them what the opportunity meant for them and their family.

“I am a proud American citizen. It’s important. I can vote, I can run for office,” he said.

No One Left Behind relies on donations and helps with furnishings, getting a car and securing other necessities. Go here for more info.

Reported, produced and edited by Caroline Tucker, and shot by Ambrose Vurnis

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