A Former Afghan Army Interpreter on the Hidden Costs of the Travel Ban

Whether or not the ban against citizens from seven countries from coming to the U.S. is temporary or not, it may have unintended, long-term consequences. As John McCain and Lindsey Graham pointed out in a joint statement, the ban could jeopardize our relationship with allies — both independent and otherwise — within those countries who have worked alongside the U.S. military for more than a decade. This group of foreign military and contract workers includes interpreters and translators that have proved essential to easing tensions with locals and providing background intelligence on areas and persons that pose potential threats.

In the wake of the travel ban, Janis Shinwari, an Afghan interpreter who was part of a Men's Journal feature about the Interpreters We Left Behind, talked to us about the order. After a protracted period of hiding and death threats, he was allowed entrance to the U.S. in 2013. Now, he is "shocked. Trust me, I was really shocked. I didn’t expect this from Trump. This is something that’s unacceptable not only for me, but I think for all countries — not only for Muslim countries, but for everybody.”

As we reported, on Thursday, the Trump administration pulled back on one of the most contentious inclusions among the restricted: those interpreters who had been granted special immigrant visas to come to the U.S., and were being turned away. The president also clarified this was not, in fact, a Muslim ban: "This is not about religion," he posted on Facebook, "this is about terror and keeping our country safe." Shinwari doesn't buy the rhetoric. “Actually, this is a Muslim ban, because all the Muslim countries are included. A lot of people from Afghanistan, they had the same problem, and they were stopped at the airport, they were detained.”

It’s unclear why Afghanistan was not on the list but Shinwari says that matters little regarding treatment. Earlier this week, an Afghan translator friend of Shinwari's was set to receive his special visa after a five-year wait. Two weeks before, he had turned in his and his family’s passports and spent thousands on the required medical examinations only to receive an e-mail from the U.S. embassy, shortly after the ban went into effect, that he had to come collect his passports. He would not be getting his visa.

Thursday’s amendment to the order might help expedite his visa, but Shinwari believes that after the one-time rejection, it may take his friend a year or more to again receive the proper clearance — another year of fear for his family and his life. (There’s no exact figure, but it’s worth noting that, while waiting to be cleared, hundreds of interpreters have been killed by members of, likely, the Taliban or ISIS, along with wives and children. It’s also difficult to earn enough money to survive while in hiding.)

In the future, Shinwari thinks the deepening wound could stop locals from working with the military at all, especially as the hope of refuge in the U.S. becomes a faded dream. “Those people are an asset for the U.S. Army, for the U.S. government,” he says. “If they lose their asset then I’m not sure if the U.S. will handle these hard nations on their own.” He pauses for a moment. “Actually, they can’t."