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Protecting Translators and Interpreters

May 2016


Sen. Mitch McConnell, Senate Majority Leader

Sen. Harry Reid, Senate Minority Leader 

Sen. John McCain, Chairman, Senate Armed Services Committee

Rep. Paul D. Ryan, Speaker of the House

Rep. Mac Thornberry, Chairman, House Armed Services Committee

Rep. Bob Goodlatte, Chairman, House Judiciary Committee


Dear Senators and Representatives,

Translators and interpreters are critical to national security. They are our first line of defense against domestic dangers and foreign threats – whether by translating terrorism chatter pulled from the airwaves or interpreting for our troops in conflict zones. The work of these linguists, however, often comes at a great personal cost. In the case of host nation linguists, they are hunted down, abducted, tortured and assassinated by insurgent groups who consider them traitors for collaborating with foreign militaries.

That is why the undersigned, representing the world’s major translator and interpreter associations and advocacy organizations, read with alarm the current mark-up of the 2017 defense spending bill. We are referring specifically to the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program for Afghan translators and interpreters, which has been eviscerated in §1216 of H.R. 4909: National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017.

The SIV program, which has moved along in fits and starts over the years, is again at a critical juncture. H.R.4909 does not provide for additional visas for Afghan allies, despite the fact that there is a backlog of more than 10,000 applications, a number which the current visa allotment cannot accommodate. Thus Congress should authorize a sufficient amount of additional visas to clear pending cases. A corollary to this issue is the length of time it takes to grant visas. Despite the fact that this process should not exceed nine months, applicants we have been in contact with often have been waiting, in hiding, for years. It is imperative that the Departments of State and Homeland Security be held to the mandated time limit because interpreters are dead men walking.

Another harmful change pertains to the narrowing of eligibility criteria. To make visa decisions based on workplace distinctions – for instance, it appears that a linguist working at a military base would be deemed ineligible while interpreters accompanying soldiers on missions would qualify – may make sense to some here in the US; however, when interpreters return to their communities, the Taliban do not parse job descriptions but target them indiscriminately. It is important that the program apply to all linguists regardless of their work context. Furthermore, the prospect that the program may end this year will leave current hires with no option to escape their dangerous environment. We urge you to not let the program expire, as threats to linguists have no expiration date.

Another exacerbating issue for linguists – whether from Afghanistan or Iraq – is their difficulty to obtain employment certificates from defense contractors, a prerequisite to completing the SIV paperwork. This problem must be resolved or an alternative to these certificates found. Aside from not responding to requests, we are aware of one contractor who supplied interpreters to US troops in Afghanistan and who has placed many of these linguists on watch- and blacklists for what often amounted to cultural misunderstandings, causing SIV applications to be rejected. Thus, in cases where no immediate security threat was established, Congress should earmark funds to establish a review procedure for ongoing red-flagged applications and a fair and transparent appeals process.

We do understand the necessity of thoroughly vetting anyone seeking asylum in the United States; however, linguists who have served alongside U.S. troops in Afghanistan have already undergone security checks and have a proven track record – many of them having saved soldiers’ lives. We thus consider it a moral imperative to prioritize their safety and grant them visas without delay. Acting with honor towards our allies will not only enhance America’s standing in the world but ensure safety at home.

We urge members of Congress to amend the bill to reflect our considerations and save precious lives.



Maya Hess, President, Red T

Linda Fitchett, Chair, Conflict Zone Group, International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC)

Henry Liu, President, International Federation of Translators and Interpreters (FIT)

Aurora Humarán, President, International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI)

Angela Sasso, President, Critical Link International (CLI)

Debra Russell, President, World Association of Sign Language Interpreters (WASLI)

Aitor Arauz Chapman, Advisory Board Representative, AIIC USA

Katharine Allen & Barry Olsen, Co-Presidents, InterpretAmerica

Esther Navarro-Hall, Chair, National Association of Judiciary Interpreters (NAJIT)

William Rivers, Executive Director, Joint National Committee for Languages – National Council for

            Language and International Studies (JNCL-NCLIS)

Diana Rhudick, President, New England Translators Association (NETA)

Lori Thicke, Founder, Translators without Borders (TwB)


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