WASHINGTON — Time is running out on programs to secure visas for Iraqis and Afghans who put their lives on the line to help U.S. forces.
Rep. Earl Blumenaeur (D-Ore.), a key proponent of the special immigrant visas, noted on the House floor today that the programs, which expire in four days, have devolved into a bureaucratic mess that leaves many who have risked their lives to serve Americans in the lurch just when they may need the U.S. most.
“There is overwhelming bipartisan support, led in the most articulate and forceful way by new members in both parties like Tulsi Gabbard and Adam Kinzinger, who are themselves veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. This bipartisan group of recent veterans has seen the invaluable service and sacrifice of these people, and feels a deep commitment to their safety,” Blumenaeur said.
“Sadly, not everybody in Congress feels that commitment, that moral obligation. The House Judiciary Committee leadership has been passive, if not outright opposed…If this program shuts down for even a few hours, it will set back their progress because of the cumbersome, convoluted nature of the program of security checks. People will be forced back to square one for approval, with their lives in great peril.”
The Afghan Allies Protection Act of 2009 authorized 1,500 special immigrant visas annually for Afghan employees and contractors of the U.S. government for fiscal years 2009 through 2013. Those eligible have worked for the U.S. for at least a year and have been the target of “an ongoing serious threat as a consequence of that employment.” The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008 authorized the special immigrant visa program for five years, extended to Iraqis who gave “faithful and valuable service” to the U.S. government and faced risks as a result.
In March, 19 members of the House and Senate, including six veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, wrote President Obama to request his assistance in getting the programs extended.
“It is our belief that the purpose of these programs has not yet been fulfilled and must be reformed and extended in order to meet their Congressional intent,” stated the letter. Between FY 2008 and FY 2012, only 22 percent of the available Iraqi visas and just 12 percent of the special visas available to Afghans were issued. This wasn’t for a lack of applicants, as the Washington Post reported nearly a year ago that more than 5,000 Afghan applications were backlogged.
Out of the 8,000 visas available to Afghans over that time period, just 1,051 were issued. Out of the 25,000 reserved for Iraqis, 5,500 were issued.
“Innumerable Afghans who served the U.S. Government wait in peril, their lives and family threatened,” wrote the lawmakers, led by Blumenaeur. “The extension and reform of these programs is a matter of national security, and these programs represent an important tool for the U.S. operations in Afghanistan.”
Some applicants have taken bullets for the U.S. cause. Most come with multiple recommendations from military personnel and have served up to eight years alongside the Americans. Lawmakers noted there’s little transparency in how the Baghdad and Kabul embassies make their decisions, and the applicants have no route to appeal.
If the family of an Iraqi who helped U.S. forces is also under threat, they can also apply for visas under the program. Under the Afghan side of the program, though, only a spouse and children under 21 are eligible.
Today Blumenaeur, who first introduced legislation in 2007 to help those who’ve helped American forces, stressed “there was an implicit promise: as they risked their lives to help us, we would work to protect them when the American presence was scaled down.”
“These were the people who were interpreters, guides, drivers; people who performed countless tasks, without which our military, diplomatic, and redevelopment efforts would have been impossible,” he said.
“Thousands of people are now threatened on a daily basis by people with very long memories. It would seem as though this shouldn’t be an impossible task,” the congressman continued. “After all, these are people who risked their lives to help and serve Americans. If they had wanted to harm us, they had countless opportunities to lead people down the wrong path – to attack, assault, mislead – but, by all accounts, thousands of these people performed critical tasks faithfully, if not flawlessly.”
Blumenaeur noted it “takes incredible effort to fight the bureaucracy, delays, and procedural hurdles that too often end in frustration. Approvals have been just a trickle, and there is no sign of improvement. Instead, the program could collapse.”
“Iraq is a country that is on the verge of collapse. Violence is on the upswing, and these people have been left twisting. Many have been forced into hiding. Others and their families have not just been threatened; they’ve been killed,” he continued. “We have been unable to get anything on the continuing resolution to keep the program alive. And frankly, given the state of Congress right now, the continuing resolution doesn’t look like a very stable thing to pin our hope on.”
The congressman suggested a “unanimous consent provision that will extend the program at no additional budget cost that would keep the pipeline open to accept visas until we can get back to meeting our moral obligation.”
“…It will be to the enduring shame of this body if we can’t come together and protect the people we counted on in battle, and who are now counting on us.”
The extension of the special immigrant visas was included in the Senate Gang of Eight’s broader immigration reform bill this spring, which hasn’t seen action in the House.
In the upper chamber on Wednesday, Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) introduced a standalone bill to extend the programs.
“We made a promise to thousands of Iraqi civilians who risked their lives helping our country during a time of war and now we must honor our commitment,” said Shaheen. “Extending the special immigrant visa program by a year is the right thing to do.”
One of those waiting for a visa is Janis Shinwari, an Afghan interpreter who helped U.S. forces for seven years and went through a two-year application process to secure visas for himself, his wife and their two young children before being told that they had been approved — then put on hold again pending further administrative review.
Former Army Capt. Matt Zeller has been aggressively lobbying for Shinwari’s visa, stressing that the interpreter saved his life during a 2008 battle.
“Because they are so visible in their communities, many interpreters have become targets for violence. Janis knows for a fact that the Taliban has added his name to a kill list and he is in constant danger. For the moment, he is living safely on an army base, but he needs to leave the country immediately to ensure his safety and that of his family,” Zeller wrote in a Change.org petition that has amassed more than 110,000 supporters.
“The Embassy and the State Department have the power to help Janis leave Afghanistan and start a life in a safe place,” he added. “I know first hand how critical interpreters like Janis are to our troops serving overseas. It’s time that the US do the right thing and help Janis escape the dangerous situation he’s in because of the work that he did for our country.”