By Becca Heller
On April 18th, Hearts on Fire published my initial account of the tale of Mohammed and Tamara. Mohammed worked for 10 years for the U.S. government in Afghanistan and as a result, qualified for a special visa to come to the U.S. His sister, Tamara, whom he had cared for since their parents died when she was 12, was not allowed to join him. My organization, the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, intervened, working hard to find a way to bring Tamara to the U.S. so the family could stay together. And we succeeded. Or so we thought.
Unfortunately, by the time Tamara was granted permission to travel to the U.S., Mohammed’s own visa had expired. Tamara had to fly to her new home in Texas without her brother. When we last left them, Tamara was living with a family there, waiting for Mohammed to join her.
And that’s when their story got even more complicated -- and frustrating.
Several days after Tamara’s arrival, IRAP was notified that the Department of Homeland Security was revoking her immigration status. The reason was astonishing.
The DHS said they they had only granted her entry so that the family could stay together, and the fact that Mohammed had not traveled with her showed that the family had been lying about wanting to remain united. IRAP was given six days to respond, or Tamara was going to be subject to possible jail and deportation. The letter further suggested that the family had invented the whole scenario in order to smuggle Tamara illegally into the U.S.
IRAP submitted a mountain of evidence demonstrating that the family split was actually due to bureaucratic error on the part of the U.S. government. We collected hundreds of pages of emails between Mohammed and the State Department, IRAP and DHS, cancelled plane tickets, and the so-called “night letters” that the Taliban leaves on the porches of U.S. allies overnight, threatening to kill them and their families. Mohammed received no less than four of these in the weeks since my last blog post.
Several days after submitting our evidence, DHS responded. Tamara had 48 hours to leave the country or face possible arrest and deportation.
Meanwhile, Mohammed, in the face of mounting death threats, had fled to London with his wife and children, where he was attempting to reopen his visa application at the U.S. Embassy.
IRAP launched an all out campaign to get Tamara’s visa extended. Congressional offices, prominent journalists and other advocates all intervened. Finally, three hours after her visa had expired, DHS relented and agreed to correct the bureaucratic error that had led to the potential deportation in the first place.
But not before Tamara panicked. 18 years old, in a country where she did not speak the language, and faced with the threat of jail time, unbeknownst to anyone, she had borrowed money from a cousin and booked a flight back to Afghanistan.
Luckily, her flight went through Heathrow. In the airport, she approached a police officer. She explained that she was terrified that if she went back to Afghanistan she would be killed and asked if someone could please contact her brother, Mohammed. The police officer agreed to allow her into the country temporarily as an asylum-seeker, and, in the most unlikely of circumstances, the family was reunited in a relatively safe place.
A week later, the U.S. State Department revoked Mohammed’s Special Immigrant Visa, on the grounds that he had trafficked his own sister into the United States.
IRAP has since been able to overturn the revocation, but after all of this, Mohammed is no longer certain he even wants to come to the U.S. He his humiliated, frustrated and tired. Why should it be so complicated, he asks, after he spent 10 years risking his life on behalf of U.S. forces in Afghanistan?
There are thousands of other Afghans like Mohammed, attempting to navigate the maddening bureaucracy of a visa program that was created to save lives and is instead often putting people in more danger.
Thankfully, since my last blog post, the Senate adopted language as part of the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act that would save the lives of more than 20,000 additional Afghans at risk because of their work for the U.S. military.
Now there must be action by Congress before the program is due to expire on September 30 of this year. Writing in an Op Ed piece in the Los Angeles Times, Secretary of State John Kerry urged Congress to approve more visas now, writing “The way a country winds down a war in a faraway place and stands with those who risked their own safety to help in the fight sends a message to the world that is not soon forgotten.”
IRAP urges all Americans not to forget our obligations to those who stood with us in far away places.