This week, I would like to discuss something different. Many people are not aware that in addition to the regular preference categories for family and employment based petitions, USCIS has also designated a special preference category for special immigrants, designated as EB-4. Late last year, in fact, the American public learned of the selfless heroism of Afghani Janis Shinwari and the extraordinary efforts that US Army Veteran Matt Zeller went to repay a debt of gratitude, ultimately resulting in a special immigrant visa under this category for Mr. Shinwari to come to the United States.
On April 28th, 2008, Captain Zeller’s convoy was ambushed in Afghanistan. After taking directions from a farmer, they were sent down the wrong road and directly towards Taliban insurgents lying in wait. Captain Zeller almost certainly would have died that day if not for Mr. Janis Shinwari, an Afghani interpreter, who took up arms and fought alongside the American soldiers. During the heated battle, he actually saved Captain Zeller’s life by shooting a Taliban member who had snuck up behind the captain. Unfortunately, for Mr. Shinwari, the base that he was working at was closed down, he lost his job, and he was forced to go into hiding out of fear of retaliation by the Taliban who had placed him on a “kill list.”
In theory, men like Mr. Shinwari are eligible to apply for a special immigrant visa to come to the US. The Department of State is authorized to issue Special Immigrant Visas (or SIV) to individuals who have worked with the U.S. Armed Forces or under Chief of Mission authority as a translator or interpreter in Iraq or Afghanistan. And obviously, the rationale behind the visa makes sense: the US government should reward and recognize those individuals who aid our country at great risk to their own lives.
However, the reality of the situation, which is why Mr. Shinwari’s story garnered so much media attention, is that approvals are hard to secure. In fact, the total number of applicants that may be approved for this visa is a paltry 50. Mr. Shinwari’s visa application went through interminable delays of beuraticratc red tape, and Captain Zeller had to lobby tirelessly to finally get the petition processed. Mr. Shinwari’s case is particularly interesting because he had initially been told that the visa was approved. In anticipation, he sold his house and prepared to move his family to the United States. However, it seems that an anonymous call had come in, subsequent to the approval, to the embassy denouncing him. As a result, his visa was put on hold indefinitely pending security checks and additional polygraph examinations before finally being reinstated.
Mr. Shinwari surmises that Taliban supporters placed the call in an effort to sabotage his visa, but even for our Afghani and Iraqi allies who do not experience direct sabotage, the prospects of securing American sympathy and approval for this type of SIV visa are bleak. The countries and regions where most of them are from are hotbeds of terrorism. In addition, the embassy in Kabul actively opposes aiding these allies in coming to America because it “opposes the brain drain from Afghanistan of rare, highly qualified individuals.”
And therefore, we are left with this sad situation: where brave men and women who publicly stand with our country, provide us with essential services, and put both themselves and their families in harm’s way are applying under a system where a large majority of applications end up being abandoned due to difficulties in processing. To make matters worse, the program itself is in jeopardy: unless action is taken, the Department of State’s authority to issue these types of visas will expire on September 30, 2014, a mere 9 months from now. To this day, there are hundreds of men like Mr. Shinwari (but not as fortunate as him) who must continue to live in hiding, fearing for their own and the safety of their families because of their assistance to our Armed Forces. Just as we celebrate our veterans, so too should we remember our foreign allies, sometimes the unsung heroes.
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