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Visas for Afghans, Iraqis Who Helped U.S. Forces Get Small Reprieve, But Program Needs Big Fixes ASAP

WASHINGTON — The programs to secure visas for Iraqis and Afghans who put their lives on the line to help U.S. forces got a short reprieve as the shutdown and fight over the continuing resolution stole the headlines, but supporters fear that Congress can only do so much to save interpreters, guides, drivers, and others who assisted American soldiers.

The administration now needs to step up to fix a broken program as those at risk wait for sanctuary.

On Oct. 2, the House passed by unanimous consent Rep. Earl Blumenauer’s (D-Ore.) bill to extend the Special Immigrant Visa program that expired on Sept. 30.

“These translators and guides risked their lives to help and serve American soldiers. By all accounts, thousands of these people performed critical tasks faithfully, if not flawlessly. We made an implicit promise to protect them when the American presence was scaled down and they risked their lives to help us. Now, many are threatened on a daily basis by enemies of the United States with very long memories. We need to fulfill our promise to get them out of harm’s way,” Blumenauer said.

“This bill is an example of how the House of Representatives can and should work: in a bipartisan way and in the best interests of our citizens and allies… Now, the real work begins. Once this program is secured, we must continue to work to make sure it functions in an expedient, transparent, and responsive matter.”

Blumenauer told PJM that the ability to get the unanimous consent agreement in the midst of the shutdown chaos was “very encouraging.”

But the short extension of a program already in disarray was just the slightest of steps in the right direction to help the thousands of Afghans and Iraqis mired in backlogged applications.

Even if the visa programs get reapproved at the end of December as expected, necessary changes to the processing of the visa applications need to come from the applicable agencies and administration.

To that end, Blumenauer followed up the vote with a letter last week to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Secretary of State John Kerry, Acting Homeland Security Secretary Rand Beers, FBI Director James Comey, and National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen.

The congressman called the bipartisan, bicameral support for the special immigrant visas “only the first step in what has to be a broad government effort to rebuild a functioning, transparent, and responsive SIV program for the men and women who risked their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan to serve Americans.”

“This three-month patch merely prevented Congress from pulling the plug on a program that was already on life support,” Blumenauer continued. “…Before Congress passed the extension last week, an advocate who works closely with SIV applicants jokingly wondered whether Iraqis would be able to tell the difference between the expired SIV program and the one they’d all desperately been waiting on for months, if not years.”

“The number of men and women who continue to wait is deeply depressing.”

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.

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. 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. 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.

Blumenauer noted that in Fiscal Year 2013 only 339 special visas had been issued to Iraqis out of 5,000 available, a “staggeringly low” number in comparison to the 1,655 processed in FY 2012.

As of June 30 in Afghanistan, just 144 of the FY 2013 visas were issued to Afghans who face threats from the Taliban in return for working with the soon-to-withdraw American forces. Out of the 1,500 annual available visas, that’s the least issued out of any prior year despite the backlogged applicants.

He also noted how the State Department lauded renewal of the programs as sending a message not just to those who help the U.S. abroad “that we are committed to those who place their lives on the line to assist our national interests,” but to people around the world “whom we may ask in the future to do the same.”

“Clearly the same logic applies — and the same message is sent — if we’re unable to make the SIV programs function properly,” Blumenauer wrote.

The congressman asked for an opportunity to confer with the agencies to come up with a comprehensive plan “about who should be responsible and how we can make the Iraq and Afghanistan SIV programs function.”

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 have 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.

The Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project offered examples of the human toll of the special immigrant visa backlog in both countries.

“An Iraqi who owned a company that supplied the U.S. military mission for five years, from 2003 to 2008, was threatened repeatedly and had to flee to Jordan. He applied for an SIV in 2011. He received final approval and was granted a visa in July 2012.Yet, his visa was inexplicably cancelled at the airport, but the U.S. Embassy suggested that he reapply. However, in March 2013, he and his family began to receive dozens of threats via phone and text message, referencing his work with the US and threatening to kill his family.  Weeks after the threats began, his family’s home in Iraq was firebombed, and his entire family had to flee. Their cases remain pending,” reads one case from the project.

“Mr. Mashal applied for a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) in June 2012 and was given an interview date on September 18, 2013 at Embassy Kabul. His case is currently in administrative processing, as he undergoes security checks. Mr. Mashal worked alongside retired Army Captain Matt Zeller in Afghanistan. Mr. Mashal is in urgent danger as he is no longer working for U.S. Forces, and is therefore no longer afforded a special layer of protection. Mr. Mashal has been living in hiding at his family’s house in Kabul. One month ago, Taliban fighters knocked on the door of his father’s house looking for Mr. Mashal. While his father was at the door, Mr. Mashal was able to escape by jumping over the fence into his neighbor’s yard. The Taliban threated Mr. Mashal’s father and said that they were planning to execute Mr. Mashal for his assistance of the U.S. Military.”