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.