A 48-year-old Afghan man who worked as a translator for the U.S. military, his wife, and their five children have been detained at George Bush Intercontinental Airport and told they will be returned to Kabul, their lawyer said Friday.
Mohasif Motawakil and his family arrived at the airport Thursday after receiving special immigrant visas because he worked with the U.S. military from 2012-2013, said Luis Colon, an attorney with Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, or RAICES, an immigrant advocacy group. Motawakil later also worked with a U.S. contractor.
Thousands of Afghans and Iraqis and their families have entered the U.S. on such visas since Congress enacted The Afghan Allies Protection Act in 2009 and a similar program for Iraq in 2008. The laws provided for special immigrant visas for those who worked with the U.S. government and have been endangered as a result.
The process can take years and the visas are limited and difficult to qualify for.
According to Colon, Motawakil and his family were detained by Customs and Border Protection agents at the airport on Thursday. The problem appears to be that someone, perhaps in the family, had wrongly opened a sealed envelope containing their medical records, the attorney said.
Colon said he was waiting in the international arrivals area late Friday, but had not been able to speak to his client.
He said the family faces danger in Afghanistan, and that Motawakil had risked his life for the U.S. military, only to risk being sent back over a seemingly minor error.
The situation was also complicated by Day 21 of the government shutdown over President Donald Trump’s $5.7 billion request for a border wall.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department referred questions to Customs and Border Protection.
But Corry Schiermeyer, the press secretary for that agency, replied in an email that she was not able to return emails or phone calls “until I return to duty upon conclusion of the funding hiatus.”
Customs and Border Protection officials have expansive latitude in determining who is allowed into the United States and under President Donald Trump’s administration have tightened their scrutiny.
Only about four dozen Iraqis were admitted in 2018 through a program Congress created specifically for those employed with the U.S. government or American contractors. More than 3,000 came in 2017.
About another 9,700 Iraqis and Afghans and their family members who qualified for special immigrant visas because they worked with the U.S. military arrived in 2018, half of those that came through that program in 2017.
This story will be updated as more information becomes available.