Special Immigrant Visa Update — National Action Alert

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Every week, I look forward to sharing the bold actions many are taking to welcome and protect newcomers. In this week’s National Action Alert, Rosalynd Erney, LIRS Advocacy Fellow and Lutheran Volunteer Corps member, writes on the Afghan and Iraqi Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) programs and why it’s crucial that Congress extend and improve these programs.

Ahlan wa sahlan, a common greeting in Arab culture, loosely translates to mean “May you come as part of my family and walk easily as you go.” As a student studying abroad in Jordan last year, I heard it almost every day—walking in the street, entering shops, even when getting food from a food cart—and really felt what it meant to be welcomed in a foreign land. That common greeting and the overwhelming sense of hospitality and welcome it embodies have stuck with me ever since I came back. In my time here at LIRS, I’ve been reflecting on that notion of hospitality and what it truly means to welcome others.

Last Tuesday, I had the privilege of attending a briefing on the Afghan and Iraqi Special Immigrant Visa programs featuring Army Captain and Afghanistan veteran Matt Zeller and Janis Shenwary, his former interpreter and recent recipient of an Afghan SIV. Congress created these programs in 2008 and 2009, respectively, to protect Iraqi and Afghan nationals who face persecution as a result of their employment with the U.S. missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Captain Zeller and Mr. Shenwary spoke about a time when, after one week of knowing each other, Mr. Shenwary saved Captain Zeller’s life during a Taliban ambush. When asked why he would risk his life to protect a stranger, Mr. Shenwary had a simple but profound answer:

“You are a guest in my country, and I’m honor-bound to protect you.”

That statement gave me goosebumps, and I couldn’t help but think back to that simple greeting and the heavy meaning it carries. We have a responsibility not only to care for the newcomers among us, but also to welcome them as part of our family.

Mr. Shenwary, like other Iraqi and Afghani nationals who aided American missions, faced daily persecution because of his association with the United States. He received regular death threats, his children could not go to school, and after the forward operating base [military base] where he had been living was shut down, he and his family had to go into hiding.

After leaving Afghanistan in 2008, Captain Zeller felt he had to do everything in his power and more to make sure that his friend and brother received a visa to seek safety in the United States. After five years of repeated death threats and multiple appeals to Congress and the State Department, Mr. Shenwary and his family finally arrived in the United States two weeks ago.

Unfortunately, many men and women like Mr. Shenwary do not have an extraordinary champion like Captain Zeller to ensure that their visas are pushed through the system. In addition to bureaucratic backlog slowing the process for many applicants, both the Iraqi and Afghan programs have rapidly approaching expiration dates. Reports of other shortcomings in the programs are also emerging, such as this front-page story in the Washington Post that ran on Veteran’s Day.

Congress acted unanimously in October to extend the Iraqi program until December 31, 2013. Upon its expiration, those Iraqis still waiting in line to have their visas processed will be left without a way to seek safety here. The Afghan SIV program is set to expire in September 2014, and unlike its Iraqi counterpart, it is not open to many vulnerable Afghanis such as certain family members of interpreters or individuals who served as translators for U.S.-based non-governmental or media organizations.

These people, who stood to welcome us in their home countries, deserve more. They deserve a lifeline—a way to seek safety in the very country for which they placed their lives in danger. There is no doubt about the importance and urgency of improving and extending the Iraqi and Afghan SIV programs after hearing the testimony of Captain Zeller and Mr. Shenwary. While temporary extensions are welcome, more needs to be done.  The Senate’s immigration reform bill (S.744) improves processing times and efficiency for visa applicants and allows unused visas to be allocated through the end of fiscal year 2018. We urge Congress to protect thousands of lives by taking these measures.

Like Mr. Shenwary, we are honor-bound to keep our promises to protect these brave men and women. We have a responsibility, both as a nation and as people, to have the courage to stand for welcome.

Ahlan wa sahlan.

If you are moved by the words above, consider taking a moment to visit the LIRS Action Center and thank Members of Congress who helped extend the SIV programs.

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