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Revocation of visa dashes hopes of Afghan interpreter

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By The Washington Post
Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2013, 9:21 p.m.

Having worked as an interpreter for the U.S. military in Afghanistan for seven years, Mohammad Janis Shinwari was ecstatic when he walked out of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul this month with immigrant visas stamped on his passport and those of his wife and two children.

The joy was short-lived. As Shinwari was in the process of making travel arrangements and selling his remaining possessions, an embassy representative called him last week with an ominous request: He needed to return to the consular section promptly, passport in hand.

The State Department, it turned out, revoked the visa for unspecified reasons. That prompted one of the U.S. Army officers whom Shinwari served alongside to go to war with the bureaucracy, seeking to reverse what he sees as a grave injustice.

“He became my best friend,” said Army Capt. Matt Zeller, a former Afghanistan analyst at the CIA, who maintains that Shinwari could not possibly pose a national security threat. “He is like a brother.”

The State Department has sought to revoke a small but growing number of visas it has issued to military interpreters before they travel, said Katie Reisner, the national policy director at the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, which represents Iraqi and Afghan interpreters seeking to resettle in the United States. The State Department has issued about 1,120 visas for Afghan linguists, a share of the 8,750 authorized by Congress as part of the Special Immigrant Visa program.

The rare instances in which applicants are issued visas that are later canceled appear to be triggered by anonymous tips to U.S. counterterrorism hotlines.

Reisner and Zeller, citing other cases, said the warnings could represent an attempt by insurgent groups to derail the immigration prospects of countrymen whom they see as American agents. Similar tips have led to rejection letters that have branded interpreters with stellar military records as suspected terrorists, immigration lawyers say.

“On a systemic level, it's a huge problem if State backtracks every time they get one of these anonymous tips,” Reisner said.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said she could not disclose why Shinwari's visa had been revoked but noted that the government rescinds visas if it determines that recipients are “inadmissible to the United States or otherwise ineligible.”

Harf said the State Department has sought to expedite the vetting of applicants whose cases are reviewed by multiple agencies, striking a proper balance between national security concerns and regard for the threats that many face while they get cleared to travel.

“Over the past several years, we have made demonstrable progress in improving the SIV process in Iraq and Afghanistan without compromising national security,” Harf said. “We value their service in support of our mission and take the concerns of those who work with us very seriously.”

After Shinwari's visa was issued, an anonymous tip prompted the National Counterterrorism Center to insert a warning in the database of U.S. visa holders, said Zeller, citing information he said he learned from a senior U.S. official.

Zeller, 31, advised Shinwari not to surrender his passport to the embassy last week, hoping he might manage to get the visa reinstated by calling lawmakers and other government officials. In an e-mail to the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs, Zeller argued that the last-minute reversal was illogical and warned that it was putting his friend's life at risk.

Karin King, an official at the bureau, responded that “the actions taken in his case were not made lightly,” according to an e-mail Zeller shared with The Washington Post. She said she understood why “these recent developments might seem perplexing” and regretted that legal constraints prevented her from disclosing more.

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