Afghan translator detained by Customs and Border Protection at airport after visa revoked mid-air

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) detained a U.S. military interpreter and his family at George Bush International Airport in Houston, Texas last week after their visas were canceled “mid-air.”

According to the Houston Chronicle, Afghan national Mohammad Asif Motawakil, along with his wife and their five children, boarded a plane from Afghanistan without a problem, but learned U.S. customs officials had revoked his visa upon arrival.

The family first caught the suspicion of CBP after they handed officers an unsealed documented containing their medical records. The State Department website warns immigrants to not open those packets, but does not outline what might happen if they do. Lawyers for the family claimed either the wife or children had mistakenly unsealed the documents.

CBP officials told Motawakil, who has gone through extensive background checks for his career assisting the military, that the U.S. consulate in Afghanistan had flagged his visa and emailed him to return to the office, which he did not do. Motawakil and his family were then taken into custody and threatened with deportation back to Kabul.

“Apparently the visa was not canceled until he was mid-air,” Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D) told the Chronicle. “When (customs officers) had to check his credentials, it showed there was a problem with the visa for the entire family.”

Motawakil is one of thousands of interpreters who were awarded special immigrant visas through the The Afghan Allies Protection Act enacted in 2009. Interpreters are often targeted by the Taliban for their work with the U.S. military — in 2014, the International Refugee Assistance Project estimated that an Afghan interpreter was killed every 36 hours.

Interpreters and their families are eligible for residency in the United States if they provide letters of support from American officials and can properly demonstrate that their lives are at risk in their countries of origin. This process, however, can take years and requires extensive background checks on all persons involved.

Motawakil is currently being held in an immigration detention center in Houston where he plans to apply for asylum. His wife and children were released after 24 hours on humanitarian parole, which allows them to temporarily remain in the country.

Despite the fact that Motawakil and other Afghan and Iraqi nationals have gone through extensive vetting procedures to receive visas, under the Trump administration, their ability to remain in the country has been made less certain.

Top administration officials like Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders have frequently tried to link immigration with terrorist activity, with DHS claiming CBP prevented nearly 4,000 “known or suspected” terrorists from crossing the border during Fiscal Year 2018.

That number later proved to be severely inflated. According to an NBC News investigation, only 6 “known or suspected terrorists” were actually stopped by CBP in FY2018.

President Donald Trump himself has pushed the myth of “terrorists” crossing the U.S.-Mexico border to demand funding for his proposed border wall. That demand eventually led to the longest government shutdown in U.S. history last month, after Republicans were unable to persuade Democrats to bow to Trump’s demands.

Since the beginning of the shutdown on December 21, nearly 800,000 federal employees have been furloughed or forced to work without pay, approximately 632,932 of whom received pay-stubs with zeros on them last Friday, according to the Center for American Progress (ThinkProgress is an editorially independent newsroom housed within CAP). Many of those affected are security personnel or TSA agents screening passengers and luggage at airports across the country. Border Patrol agents, CBP officers, and the Coast Guard have also been impacted by the shutdown.