Northern California Reps. Jeff Denham, Doug LaMalfa, John Garamendi and Barbara Lee are part of an unlikely coalition of Congress members working together for an urgent cause.
LaMalfa is a conservative ally of President Donald Trump from Butte County, while Lee is an ultra-liberal from Oakland. Denham, a Republican from Turlock, and Garamendi, a Democrat from Walnut Grove, fall somewhere in between. All four are now seeking answers from the Department of Homeland Security about an Afghan refugee whose best hope for survival, allies say, is to resettle in the Sacramento area.
Thus far, however, DHS is ignoring their appeals.
The California lawmakers and 34 of their colleagues in the House sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on July 31, requesting information on why the agency denied refugee status to Muhammad Kamran, an Afghan national who worked as an interpreter for the U.S military, the U.S. Agency for International Development and United Nations in Afghanistan for a decade. Amador County ranchers Ken and Susie Perano and their daughter, Kristy, have been advocating for Kamran’s resettlement, along with his wife and four young daughters, for over a year.
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The Peranos have offered to sponsor Kamran’s family, covering their housing and all expenses. In recent years, Sacramento and Modesto are two of just a few cities in the country where refugee flows have increased. The Sacramento area, in particular, has become a top destination for Afghan interpreters and others who were granted visas because of their service to U.S. and coalition forces.
Kamran hopes to be one of them. He and his family fled Afghanistan in 2014 after facing death threats from the Taliban. They are now in hiding in Pakistan, but he told The Sacramento Bee via text message that they continue to face harassment and violence there. “I have lost everything and I have nothing now,” he said.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) agency rejected Kamran’s request for refugee status for himself and his family, as well as their application for humanitarian parole for “security reasons.” They did not elaborate. Lawmakers are now asking why.
“We are concerned that USCIS is not appropriately considering (Kamran’s) decade of service,’” says their letter to Nielsen, which was drafted by Denham, an Air Force veteran, and Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland. And it notes that, “The U.S. military relies on assistance from local translators and interpreters to carry out its mission, assistance that will not be forthcoming in future conflicts should we not follow through on our promises to protect those who we put in harm’s way.”
The members of Congress requested a reply to their questions about Kamran’s case within 15 days of receipt, which was Monday. As of Tuesday, Nielsen still had not responded. “As a matter of policy, we don’t comment on congressional correspondence and will respond as appropriate,” a Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman emailed.
The letter also asks that within 30 days of receipt, the secretary provide data on the number of Afghan and Iraqi interpreters who have applied for refugee status and how many have been denied for unspecified security reasons.
The letter’s signers aren’t the only ones who are raising alarms that the Trump administration is turning away refugee applicants, despite the danger they face as a result of their work for the United States. Reuters reported on Monday that Pentagon officials raised the issue at the White House last week.
According to the report, just 48 Iraqis have been admitted to the United States this fiscal year through a special refugee program meant for people who worked for the U.S. government or American contractors, news media or non-governmental groups — a steep drop from the more than 3,000 who granted refugee status last year and about 5,100 in 2016.
The Trump administration’s security crackdown on refugees has also led to a steep decline in Afghan interpreters, like Kamran, being granted U.S. visas.
The program has bipartisan defenders in Congress, however. In the Senate, North Carolina Republican Thom Tillis and New Hampshire Democrat Jeanne Shaheen are working to pass legislation to renew the Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV, program for Afghans who worked with the United States in the War on Terror. The program is set to expire Oct. 1.
Sacramento-area Rep. Doris Matsui and several fellow Democrats have introduced legislation in the House to improve the resettlement process for SIV recipients from Iraq and Afghanistan, once they arrive in the United States.
Some Republicans, however, have expressed reservations about the program, citing costs as well as security concerns.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley told McClatchy in June that he wanted “integrity provisions” added to the SIV program before he’d support its renewal.
Last week’s arrest of a suspected ISIS member in Sacramento provides more fodder for those who are pushing for tight restrictions on refugees. Omar Abdulsattar Ameen, the alleged ISIS fighter, was granted refugee status in 2014 after claiming his father had been killed because he had cooperated with U.S. forces. Ameen was not a part of the SIV program for U.S. military partners, something defenders of the program stress.
Still, the failure in vetting is likely to become a talking point for those in the Trump administration — and outside it — who believe refugees from places like Iraq and Afghanistan pose a security risk.
Tillis, however, said he remained optimistic Congress will ultimately renew the program. “I think we have general consensus among members that it makes sense,” he told McClatchy on Tuesday. “They’re fully vetted,” he said of the special visa program applicants. “I think we should get them here.”
Denham, meanwhile, promised to “continue to push for answers on (Kamran’s) case.”
“If there is a legitimate concern with admitting Muhammad and his family to our shores, DHS should be able to tell Congress what that is,” he said.