In late October, Asif Khan Ahmadzai was set to begin his new life in America. He had made it from Afghanistan to Frankfurt, Germany, where he received a U.S. visa, and then to Reykjavik, Iceland, where he was to board a connecting flight to San Francisco.
Now 28 years old, Ahmadzai had worked as an interpreter for the U.S. military in Afghanistan. Like other locals who assisted allied forces in the longest war in U.S. history, he had pursued a “special immigrant visa” or SIV to resettle his family in America, where they would be free from the omnipresent danger that surrounds Afghans who have collaborated with U.S. forces.
But during his layover in Reykjavik, “I was told by Homeland Security personal that I am not allowed to fly to the U.S.” or board the flight, Ahmadzai said. “They just told me my visa is invalid, but it’s not true.”
Panicking, Ahmadzai reached out to No One Left Behind, a nonprofit founded by U.S. military veterans that helps Afghan and Iraqi interpreters obtain SIVs and travel to the United States, and assists them with lodging and essentials when they arrive. A representative of the group based in Rochester, New York, contacted the office of Rep. Louise Slaughter, the veteran Democratic congresswoman. Slaughter’s office then contacted the State Department to see what the problem was.
State informed Slaughter’s staff that Ahmadzai’s visa had been temporarily revoked due to new “enhanced vetting” procedures implemented by the Trump administration. “They said to expect it to occur more frequently—whereby a visa is issued and pulled” due to heightened scrutiny of visa applications, according to an email from No One Left Behind. Slaughter’s office confirmed that account of State’s comments.
Ahmadzai is one of at least three Afghan interpreters stranded abroad in the last month, apparently as a result of those “enhanced vetting” measures. Those measures were put in place as a way to prevent foreign terrorists from traveling to the United States, where groups like the Islamic State are increasingly attempting to conduct mass casualty attacks.
But measures designed to assist the fight against terrorism appear to be taking a heavy toll on individuals who volunteered, at considerable risk to themselves and their families, to assist U.S. efforts to combat terrorist groups abroad.
“It is unconscionable that Afghan interpreters who put their lives on the line working with our military, including some with valid U.S. visas, are being stranded half a world away,” Slaughter told The Daily Beast in a statement.
“Before the president came into office, our vetting process was already lengthy and rigorous, even for these individuals who have supported our troops, sometimes taking as long as two years,” she continued. “President Trump’s vetting policy should in no way impact interpreters, some of whom have fallen under threat and put their lives on the line working with our military.”
Previous immigration measures designed to curb the influx of ostensibly dangerous individuals had similar consequences. In January, President Trump signed an executive order suspending all special immigrant visas for individuals from seven Muslim-majority nations, including Iraq. In February, that ban was amended to allow Iraqi interpreters with SIVs to continue to travel to the United States. And in March, Trump signed a new executive order that replaced the previous “travel ban” and removed Iraq from the list altogether.
The legality of his executive orders remains a question before federal courts, but hurdles faced by Afghan interpreters reveal that some of the administration’s other immigration policy changes may be having similarly deleterious effects on interpreters working with Americans there.
The State Department, which handles special immigrant visa applications, declined to comment on any specific case as a matter of policy. “We are committed to supporting those who—at great personal risk—have helped U.S. military and other government personnel perform their duties,” a spokesperson said in a statement.
State also would not comment on how enhanced vetting measures may have affected interpreters’ visa applications generally. But the spokesperson noted that the department is “now collecting additional information… when a consular officer determines it is required to confirm identity or that more rigorous national security vetting should be conducted.” State pointed to a new questionnaire, known as form DS-5535, that visa applicants may be asked to complete. The form is not required of all visa applicants—it is entirely up to consular officers to determine whether more information is required, such as the foreign countries to which an applicant has traveled, and details about his or her social media profiles.
Whether Ahmadzai and other interpreters who spoke with The Daily Beast have been subjected to that process in particular was not immediately clear. But they say they have been held up in Europe or Afghanistan after receiving a visa after the U.S. government temporarily barred their entry.
That has left some stranded after they sold homes and uprooted their families—unsure of when, or if, they will be permitted to come to America.
Musa Gul Zadran has been stuck in Istanbul for nearly two weeks after officials at Ataturk airport stopped him from boarding his flight to Houston—at the request, they said, of U.S. consular officials. “All this happened without any prior notice,” Zadran told The Daily Beast, stranding him in a country where he knew no one and did not speak the language.
“After receiving my passport with visa on it, when everything was ready I sold my house, car and other properties and sent my wife along with my son and daughter to her parents and told them I will return for you when I make some money, buy a small apartment, and get stable in U.S.,” he said in an email. “I said goodbye to friends, family and neighbours and posted Good bye Afghanistan on my facebook.”
Returning to Afghanistan simply is not a possibility, he said. “I have made a lot of enemies because of my job with U.S Army,” Zadran said. I cannot return to Afghanistan because certain death is waiting for me and I want to live. For myself and my beautiful family.”
For those who served with Zadran, his situation is outrageous.
“He was my personal interpreter,” recalled a U.S. Army special operations serviceman who asked not to be identified because he remains in government service. “He slept with me and my guys. We ate at the same meals. When there were firefights, he was there. He didn’t have to go out. But we relied on him, we had a rapport, we trusted the way he handled business… Always a pro, always on time, always went above and beyond what was necessary.”
Zadran started working with U.S. forces in 2008 when he was just 19, and was assigned the Tagab district of Kapisa province, about an hour from Kabul, and one of the most violent areas of the country at the time. “I survived tens of ambushes and one suicide attack which took place on my team,” Zadran recalls.
“I don’t know how many times he was in harm’s way—rockets, small arms fire, mortars,” said the Army special operator who worked with Zadran. He was the “perfect age of a dude who could easily work for the Taliban or Al Qaeda… Instead he put his money and put his ass behind ‘if I do the right thing I can probably make it to America and get out of this shithole.’ And now we’re going to ram it up his ass for doing it?… Oh well, thanks for your help, sorry your kids are going to be orphaned. That’s not what we do.”
The U.S. serviceman said he had stayed in touch with Zadran after their time together in Afghanistan, but had later fallen out of contact. Zadran reached out recently to ask for help in sorting out his visa situation and getting to the U.S. “He’s one of the guys the program was designed for and he absolutely should be over here,” the serviceman said.
For many interpreters, the heightened visa scrutiny requirements recently imposed by the State Department present a unique challenge. According to a U.S. official familiar with the process, who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to discuss the matter, Afghans affiliated with or operating at the behest of insurgent forces in the country occasionally feed disinformation to the embassy about U.S. collaborators as a way to retaliate against them and potentially prevent them from leaving the country. A lengthier visa application process, and additional scrutiny of interpreters’ applications, afford additional opportunities for such sabotage.
Zadran suspects just such a scheme. “It seems someone has given the embassy wrong information so they get me back to Kabul and kill me.”
Others, such as Mustafa Ahmad Shah, haven’t even escaped Kabul before being tripped up by the newly intensified visa review process. Shah helped manage a bazaar of local vendors at an Army camp, used his business contacts to inform on insurgent activity, and later provided translation services to U.S. military contractors in the country.
He applied for a special immigrant visa in 2014, and after a lengthy review and interview process one was issued to him in June. Thinking he was bound for the U.S., Shah sold his car, canceled the lease on his home, pulled his kids out of school, and quit his job. He was scheduled to fly out of Kabul on Oct. 10. Instead, he was told at the airport that he needed to go back to the U.S. embassy, which took his passport and visa paperwork and told him to wait for their call. He’s still waiting.
“I made many local people as my enemy” during his service for the U.S., Shah says. Stuck in Kabul, “no one tell me what is wrong” or “what will happen to my case.”
Shah, Zadran, and Ahmadzai all separately reached out to No One Left Behind over the past week looking for help.
“It is unthinkable that the United States Government would complete three years of processing, verification, and the most comprehensive national security background check available for any type of immigrant visa; provide an applicant with a visa; and then turn them away at the airport as they try to board their flight to safety,” said Matt Zeller, NOLB’s co-founder and CEO and a retired U.S. Army captain, in a statement to The Daily Beast. “When these allies receive the Special Immigrant Visa they never expect to return home. They sell their homes and possessions and expose themselves to our enemies. The cruelty of sending them back to an even more perilous situation, with no timeline for when their visa will be reissued is unconscionable.”
The special immigrant visa process has always been cumbersome, according to Willow Fuentes, an immigration attorney who has worked with Zadran on his case. But with newly heightened scrutiny of visa applications at the whim of a consular officer, interpreters like her client can quickly find themselves mired in a bureaucracy designed to root out national security threats, but that too often ensnares those who have demonstrated their commitment to U.S. forces abroad.
“Administrative review can be a black hole, and there is little or no accountability on the part of the State Department/embassy,” Fuentes told The Daily Beast. “The standard response to a status inquiry is ‘we cannot provide a time frame in which the administrative review process will be completed.’”
That’s left her client, and others like him, in a perilous limbo with little concrete information about when, or if, they’ll be able to make it to the U.S.
For current and former servicemembers who fought alongside those interpreters, the situation is indefensible. “This isn’t just a slap in the face to these wartime allies,” Zeller said, “it quite literally may mean death for them and their families.”