A translator who risked his life to work alongside American troops in Afghanistan has been held in a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center for nearly a week, after his visa was cancelled in the middle of his family’s journey to the United States.
Now, days since Mohammad Asif Motawakil was separated from his wife and five children at a Houston airport, his lawyers say they have only had intermittent contact with their client—and members of Congress are vowing to get to the bottom of his case.
“I remain deeply troubled that the father remains confined,” Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) told The Daily Beast. “I am closely monitoring the family’s case to ensure this Afghan interpreter—who served alongside our American military—is treated justly.”
Motawakil, whose detention was first reported by The Houston Chronicle, earned his entry into the United States by working as an interpreter for U.S. troops in Afghanistan between 2012 and 2013. The work is extremely dangerous—one Afghan citizen was killed every 36 hours due to their affiliation with American troops, according to a 2014 estimate—and qualifies participants for the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program, created by Congress to protect Afghan nationals facing threats in retaliation for helping U.S. armed forces.
To qualify, applicants must have worked on behalf of U.S. troops for at least two years, and are required to demonstrate a proven risk to themselves or their families of reprisals for that work. Following extensive security checks, as well as the submission of letters of support from U.S. citizens, applicants like Motawakil frequently wait an average of 700 days to be approved for a special immigrant visa, according to the State Department—often while under threat from al Qaeda and Taliban-allied militants.
But under President Donald Trump’s “enhanced vetting” immigration policies, the number of translators admitted to the United States has slowed to a trickle: The total number of applicants who received SIV status in 2018 was half that of the year before. As of Dec. 31, 2017, nearly 10,000 Afghans were still mired in the application process, according to the State Department.
Motawakil, 48, was one of the lucky few allowed to enter the United States with a visa in hand. But according to attorneys for Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, or RAICES, a member of Motawakil’s family accidentally opened an envelope containing medical records that was supposed to remain sealed. When Motawakil handed the opened envelope to customs officials after arriving at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport from Kabul on Friday night, he and his family were detained.
After Reps. Doggett and Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat who represents much of Houston, contacted customs officials on Motawakil’s behalf, his family was released into the custody of Nisar Momand, who serves on the board of directors of Houston’s Afghan Cultural Center and is himself a special immigrant visa holder.
“They were in great distress and shock at the airport,” Momand told The Daily Beast. Motawakil’s five children, who range in age from 6 to 19 years old, were particularly upset. “They felt more comfortable once there were people who could take care of them… They were with us for one night and one day at my home, and after that, one of our volunteers took them to San Antonio.”
Members of the Afghan expat community have come together to provide Motawakil’s family with housing, clothing and cash—necessities that would normally be provided for as a stipulation of their now-cancelled visas. Motawakil, however, remains in ICE custody at the Montgomery Processing Center in Conroe, Texas, under threat of deportation.
According to RAICES, Motawakil was not afforded an opportunity to speak with his attorneys for nearly a week.
“Our attorney spoke with our client for the first time today,” William Fitzgerald, a RAICES spokesperson, told The Daily Beast late Tuesday night. “No hearing has been set yet. We will continue to advocate for his interests.”
Even Jackson Lee hasn’t heard any updates, according to a spokesperson. Requests for comment regarding Motawakil’s status or condition were not returned by the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, or U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, all of which have been affected by the partial federal shutdown.
One condition of Motawakil’s special immigrant visa is proving that he faces a demonstrable threat to his life in Afghanistan due to his work on behalf of the U.S. government—which means that deporting him back to Afghanistan is a potential death sentence.
“The visa process is supposed to be very fast, but nowadays, the process is very slow in Afghanistan, and people are dying over there,” said Momand, who came to the United States in 2014 after working for the United States Agency for International Development in Afghanistan. “They are not safe over there, but the process is very slow—we need these cases to be processed, for people to come over as fast as possible.”