WASHINGTON (CN) – Forced to wait years for the visas they were promised in exchange for assisting U.S. war efforts, five Afghan and Iraqi nationals say in a federal class action that their lives and their families’ safety are at stake.
“By working with the United States, the allies and their families have become targets for retaliation by the Taliban, Al-Qaida, ISIS (aka Daesh), and other terrorist groups,” the 29-page complaint says. “This risk is not theoretical: numerous Afghans and Iraqis helping the United States have been targeted and assassinated by these terrorist organizations.”
Filed in Washington, the lawsuit from the International Refugee Assistance Project and the firm Freshfields Bruckhaus is dated June 12 but only made public Wednesday, having been filed under seal pending permission for the lead plaintiffs to proceed anonymously.
In 2013, Congress set a nine-month deadline for the Departments of State and Homeland Security to process special immigrant visas for those Iraqis and Afghans who gave “faithful and valuable” service to U.S. or allied troops.
With those agencies now acknowledging that applicants often have to wait several years for decisions, the five plaintiffs say the consequences have been deadly.
Despite the government’s decision to settle two similar lawsuits filed in 2015, the plaintiffs say the problems with delays persist, leaving them and their families in danger while they await decisions on the visas they applied for years ago.
Deepa Alagesan with the International Refugee Assistance Project said it’s not fully understood what causes the delays, but information in the public record suggests that lengthy security checks and breakdowns in interagency coordination compound the problem.
But while their applications languish, Alagesan said that her clients live a very stressful life.
“The stress is twofold: there’s the stress of maintaining their safety and their families’ safety,” she said in a phone interview. “There’s the stress of always trying not to slip up – they’re living in hiding, they can’t tell family members or close friends about what they do.”
Meantime the kids must stay home because it is too dangerous to send them to school.
“Whatever it takes to minimize the chances that a militant group will identify them based on their allegiance to the United States and take some action against them,” Alagesan said.
The other part of the stress comes from the uncertainty of waiting for news on their applications, she said.
One of the plaintiffs, an Iraqi identified as John Doe-Echo, says militants kidnapped and murdered his father after he applied for a special immigrant visa in July 2013. Afghan co-plaintiff Jane Doe-Delta says masked men have followed her and her family members since she applied for a visa in 2016, and threatened them with death unless she quits her job working for a U.S. military contractor.
Apprising the United States of such threats has had no effect on the sluggish processing of their applications, according to the complaint.
“The allies, and others like them, are currently in limbo, unable either to count on the arrival of a US visa or to devote the few resources they have towards trying to secure alternative means of relative safety by moving elsewhere in their home countries or abroad,” the complaint says. “Instead, they wait, in mortal danger, for Defendants to fulfill the promise Congress made to them.”
A State Department official declined to comment on the pending litigation. The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.
The plaintiffs have alleged violations of the Administrative Procedure Act, and seek a declaratory judgment and mandamus relief to compel the government to process their visa applications.