Afghan military interpreter freed from federal detention

January 18, 2019

An Afghan interpreter for the U.S. military, detained at a Houston airport and threatened with deportation, has been released after a week in custody, advocates and a government spokesman said.

The interpreter, Mohasif Motawakil, 48, who was detained at George Bush Intercontinental Airport Jan. 10 after arriving in the U.S. with his wife and five children, was freed Thursday, his lawyers said.

A spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection confirmed the news.

“State Department has reviewed their initial decision, and Mr. Motawakil’s visa has been reinstated and he has been deemed admissible for entry into the United States,” the spokesman said in an emailed statement.

Afghan and Iraqi interpreters who worked alongside American troops can qualify for special immigrant visas granting them residency in the United States if they receive letters of support from American officials and show that their lives are in danger. The process takes years for many applicants, who undergo extensive security screenings.

Motawakil’s family appears to have raised suspicion in part when he handed customs officers an envelope that was supposed to be sealed containing their medical records. Someone, apparently a family member, had mistakenly opened the envelope, according to lawyers with Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, or RAICES, a legal advocacy group.

“It’s shocking to see the way this administration is treating those who have supported our troops,” Erika Andiola, chief advocacy officer for RAICES, said in a news release announcing his release. “The administration is engaged in a systematic attack on all who it thinks do not belong in this country, and this is just the latest evidence of that.”

The detention of Motawakil and his family prompted a flurry of protests, and several members of Congress called for his release.

His wife and family were allowed to leave the airport after a brief detention, but their visas were revoked, meaning they would no longer qualify for cash assistance and other benefits aleady allocated to them, such as help finding work and learning English.

Motawakil’s family arrived late Saturday in San Antonio, where they are staying with another Afghan interpreter. It was not immediately clear Friday if the family would regain its eligibility for government benefits.

Thousands of Afghans and Iraqis and their families have entered the U.S. on special immigrant visas since Congress enacted The Afghan Allies Protection Act in 2009 and a similar program for Iraq in 2008.

Many face danger from the Taliban and other militants after working with U.S. troops. In 2014, the International Refugee Assistance Project, a nonprofit in New York City, estimated that an Afghan interpreter was killed every 36 hours.

Under the Trump administration, the number of Iraqis and Afghans coming here through these programs have drastically fallen.

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.

Update hourly