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Betraying the Best


On Friday, January 10, 2019, 48-year-old Mohasif Motawakil, a former interpreter for the U.S. military in Afghanistan was arrested at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, Texas, placed in detention and threatened with deportation back to Kabul. Motawakil had obtained a Special Immigrant Visa through a program passed by Congress in 2009, the Afghan Allies Protection Act. Motawakil was eligible after assisting military operators from 2012 to 2013, but Customs and Border Protection kept him in custody for a week over concerns that some medical records had been faked. He had arrived with his wife and five children, and while they were released at 10 PM that night, he would be held at an ICE Detention Center until the afternoon of the 17th.

A Special Immigrant Visa is an opportunity to gain lawful permanent residence and offers a long path to citizenship. The visas are granted to interpreters and translators who clear a rigorous fourteen-step process after having risked their lives working on behalf of the U.S. government and in support of the mission. The process can cost thousands of dollars and takes one to three years to complete. After a battery of interviews and medical screenings, documentation of service is required, which can be difficult to obtain when supervisors may have rotated out of the country, or contractors vanish; a counterintelligence exam, often including an unreliable polygraph test is administered, and proof that the individual is in danger must be given. The Taliban considers interpreters traitors, but tend not to send notarized letters clarifying their intent to harm.

As a consequence of the (ongoing) government shutdown, agency officials with the CBP, State Department and U.S. Embassy in Kabul failed to respond for comment requests regarding the confused and traumatised family. According to, as of March 31, 2018, 11,640 Afghan principal applicants and 12,067 of their family members were stuck at some point in the application phase with fewer than 4,000 visas available. Based on State Department data, the number of visa approvals would fall by 60 percent by the end of 2018. An advocacy group for former military interpreters founded by veteran Matt Zeller and his interpreter Janis Shinwari, No One Left Behind ( blames the increased vetting measures authorized by the Trump administration for the extraordinary delays. In FY 2019, the National Defense Authorization Act passed without inclusion of additional Afghan Special Immigrant Visas. U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan continues into its eighteenth year while thousands of interpreters and translators, specialists who helped the US military the most, are still left out in the cold.

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