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Lawsuit Challenges Delays On U.S. Immigrant Visa Applications For Afghan, Iraqi Allies

U.S. Army Captain Matt Zeller (left) with translator Janis Shenwari, whom he credits for saving his life in Afghanistan in 2008, during an interview in 2013 in Arlington, Virginia, after Shenwari received a special immigrant visa.
U.S. Army Captain Matt Zeller (left) with translator Janis Shenwari, whom he credits for saving his life in Afghanistan in 2008, during an interview in 2013 in Arlington, Virginia, after Shenwari received a special immigrant visa.

Afghan and Iraqi men and women who've worked to support U.S. missions in their countries have joined a class-action lawsuit against the U.S. government to challenge "life-threatening delays" in the application process for special immigrant visas.

The plaintiffs applied for immigrant visas under decade-old congressional programs aimed at providing safety for Afghans and Iraqis employed by the U.S. military and government.

Of the thousands of applicants, most have been employed as translators for U.S. troops and development projects, or as local support for intelligence and other operations at U.S. military bases and government facilities.

The five plaintiffs in the lawsuit are not asking for money. They want a U.S. federal court to intervene on their behalf and push for swift rulings on their visa applications.

The outcome of the case could also speed the process for thousands of other Afghans and Iraqis who are at some stage of trying to obtain special immigrant visas under the programs.

The lawsuit says the applicants and their families "remain in danger each day that their applications are not determined" because they have become "targets for retaliation" by Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and Islamic State (IS) militants.

"The risk is not theoretical," the lawsuit maintains. "Numerous Afghans and Iraqis helping the United States have been targeted and assassinated by these terrorist organizations."

"Knowing that my father was [kidnapped by militants and] killed because of my work leaves me terrified that [other] members of my family or I will meet the same fate," said one Iraqi plaintiff, a former translator for the U.S. military who is identified by the alias John Doe Echo.

Having begun the visa application process in 2009, he said the uncertainty of not knowing whether his visa will be granted had had "a very big impact" on his life. "I was happy to help both the United States military and the Iraqi people with my work," he said. "I still have a lot of hope that I can have a fresh start in America."

The other plaintiffs include two Afghan men and two Afghan women who applied for special immigrant visas as long ago as July 2013 but have yet to receive final decisions.

They have worked for U.S. government-funded development organizations, a U.S. government communications contractor, and as a translator for U.S. military contractors.

The class-action lawsuit was filed on June 12 at a federal district court in the U.S. capital by attorneys from the multinational law firm Freshfields and an advocacy group called the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), a program of the New York-based Urban Justice Center.

"We need to ensure that the legal programs that were created to get these allies out of harm's way are actually effective at doing so," IRAP staff attorney Deepa Alagesan said in the lawsuit.

"Keeping our invaluable partners in limbo for years erodes trust in us and destabilizes our relationships in the region," Alagesan said. "America needs to keep its promise to these brave allies."

Defendants being sued in their official capacity include Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, and other senior figures in their departments.

There was no immediate comment from the departments of State and Homeland Security, which also were named in the suit as agencies that administer the special-immigrant-visa programs.

But government lawyers have previously admitted that the special visa applications often languish in an intermediate state of "administrative processing."

'Administrative' Delays

In order to qualify for the special-immigrant-visa programs, applicants must go through a difficult and lengthy vetting process that often takes more than five years and requires letters of recommendation from senior U.S. military officers of U.S. government officials in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Applicants also must be interviewed by U.S. Embassy officials in Kabul and Baghdad as part of a stringent vetting process before actually receiving the special visas.

Even with the special visas, some Afghans have been detained by U.S. border officials and delayed while awaiting "admissibility interviews" before finally being allowed to resettle in the United States.

The U.S. Congress has recognized that long delays in the process put the lives of applicants in danger. In 2013, Congress ordered that applications should be processed within nine months.

"Nonetheless, today, defendants themselves publicly admit that they are systemically failing to meet the congressionally imposed nine-month deadline," the lawsuit maintains.

A similar lawsuit was filed at the U.S. District Court in Washington in 2015 when eight Iraqi and four Afghan special-immigrant-visa applicants joined a class-action suit against then-Secretary of State John Kerry and the departments of State and Homeland Security.

The government called for that suit to be dismissed, but the court ruled the claims were subject to trial.

The government settled with those individuals shortly after the court's January 2016 decision and promptly issued rulings on each applicant's case.